Friday, June 15, 2018


Brett M. Rogers, Benjamin Eldon Stevens (ed.), Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. viii, 367. ISBN 9780190610067. $35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Debbie Felton, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Following closely upon their influential collection Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (OUP 2015),1 Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens have compiled another excellent volume that again demonstrates the importance of classical authors to later literature—in this case, to fantasy. The editors define "fantasy" as a genre that confronts or contradicts the "real," inasmuch as its stories emphasize settings and events that could not possibly occur in the world as we currently perceive it, or that occur in an "otherworld" entirely (7-8). As the same could perhaps be said of science fiction, the editors further distinguish fantasy from science fiction by specifying that the latter is based on what is theoretically, if not actually, possible. The editors argue that the contributing essays "suggest that fantasy's alterity—its requirement of belief in metaphysically different worlds—is powered in part by the genre's engagement with Greco-Roman antiquity" (vii). This volume therefore aims to investigate the question of whether "modern fantasy is what it is because of its relationship to the classical tradition and its role as a site for classical receptions" (9). Although the editors open by describing "modern fantasy" (henceforth MF) as a category "that emerged in the eighteenth century" (1), they also concede the difficulty in stating any definitive literary or chronological starting point for MF, given the lack of scholarly consensus in defining "fantasy" (11).

The first section, "Classical Apparitions in (Pre-)Modern Fantasy," posits that fantasy as a literary and artistic genre is "older than it may seem" (15)—an odd statement given the admitted lack of consensus about the genre's chronology. Jesse Weiner's essay, "Classical Epic and the Poetics of Modern Fantasy," argues that fantasy, as a "consummately mythological genre," picks up on themes found in even the earliest Greek literature, such as Homer (25). Weiner first considers "high" fantasy (a distinction left undefined) as a type of modern "epic in prose" that conforms to Aristotle's aesthetic guidelines for heroic epic poetry, while the second part of his chapter examines "the divergent receptions of classical epic and MF" (26). Using George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire as his paradigm, Weiner highlights shared conventions between fantasy and classical epics, such as the protagonists' heroic quests and the role of fate, while reminding us that though epic is held in high regard, fantasy still struggles to achieve respectability in academic circles. Cecilie Flugt's "Theorizing Fantasy: Enchantment, Parody, and the Classical Tradition" discusses what she terms the "parodic impulse" (57) — the influence of ancient literary parody in the works of E.T.A. Hoffman and other authors of the Romantic era (57). In this section we also find the only chapter in the volume to deal primarily with visual rather than literary reception: Genevieve Gessert's "The Mirror Crack'd: Fractured Classicisms in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Illustration," traces the classical fantasy aesthetic in the work of such artists as William Holman Hunt and Andrew Lang. Her enchanting subject matter contrasts starkly with that of the last chapter in this section, Robinson Krämer's "Classical Antiquity and the Timeless Horrors of H.P. Lovecraft," which considers the broad influence of Greek and Roman antiquity on Lovecraft's pagan world-view, his use of language, and the "timeless" setting of his stories, many of which view antiquity as unsettling and uncanny (117).

The three essays in Part II, "False Medievalism and Other Ancient Fantasies," delve into classical aspects in specific works of two of the "single most influential authors in MF"—J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (16). "False medievalism" here refers to Lewis's phrase for MF's "frequent dependence on an ahistorical, nineteenth-century Romantic image of chivalry" (17). In "Ancient Underworlds in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit," Benjamin Eldon Stevens analyzes the katabasis motif primarily in Bilbo's encounter with the "emphatically chthonic" Gollum (130) and more generally in hobbit-holes and dwarf-caverns. Stevens also demonstrates how Tolkien's use of the motif relates to his interest in the lost past and the ephemerality of memory. Jeffrey Winkle's chapter on "C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' and Apuleius's Metamorphoses" stresses the novels' striking parallels in "major narrative plot points and Platonic philosophy" (145), paying particular attention to the spiritual transformations of Apuleius' Lucius and Lewis's Eustace Scrubb. Rounding out this section is Marcus Folch's chapter on Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis's final novel, which retells Apuleius's Cupid and Psyche story from the perspective of one of Psyche's sisters, "Orual," and sets the story "at the crossroads of Greco-Roman antiquity and medievalizing fantasy" (163). Although he notes the novel's classical structures and motifs, Folch emphasizes Orual's changing attitudes toward the divine and argues that Lewis accompanied this theological shift with a shift from Apuleius's classical physical and temporal setting into "Biblical chronotopes" (185), that is, biblical configuration of time and space as represented by Lewis's use of thought and language. This is a fascinating observation about a classically-influenced novel largely ignored by classicists, though Folch obscures his supporting points with an unnecessarily heavy use of jargon, e.g., "The Priest's 'holiness'—his theriomorphic visage and sacral fetor—personifies the brutality of Glome's primal spatiotemporality; and he espouses sacred epistemology that … resists reason and defies systematicity" (171).

Part III, "Children and (Other) Ancient Monsters, never clearly explains its allusion to children as monsters, but rather explores the ways in which children's literature subverts authority by drawing on classical literature. Sarah Annes Brown's "The Classical Pantheon in Children's Fantasy Literature," noting the tendency of much MF to draw on northern European folktales rather than classical myths, examines "reasons and methods for marginalizing Greek gods" in the genre over the last hundred years (191). While an engaging read both in its style and in its observations about the potentially "unsettling combination of contradictory traits" exhibited by the Greek gods in works from P.L. Travers, Kelly McCullough, Rick Riordan, and others, this chapter casts its net too widely by failing to narrow down the parameters of "children's fantasy" in any meaningful way. Brown makes no reference to age groups or psychological development, and while discussing Marie Phillips's humorously raunchy Gods Behaving Badly, admits that it "is not a children's book" (205). Brown also adduces Neil Gaiman's arguably even more inappropriate Good Omens and American Gods. In short, Brown's interest appears to be more clearly settled on the role of the Greek pantheon in MF generally rather than in children's fantasy literature. In contrast, Brett M. Rogers' chapter on receptions of Aeschylus in the Harry Potter series focuses on the later novels' intended YA audience and argues that allusions to the dramas of Aeschylus, far from being mere "playful flourishes of erudition" (211, citing Mills 2009), instead offer crucial insight into how the Harry Potter books—especially Deathly Hallows— deal with the necessity of "becoming educated in moral virtue and civic action against tyranny" (222). In "Filthy Harpies and Fictive Knowledge in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy," Antonia Syson deftly analyzes Pullman's use of the female monsters from Greek and Roman myth who "embody cosmological pollution," considering "material knowledge as a form of defilement" (234-5) in relation to the opposition between "fictions that expand knowledge" and "fictions that distort or neutralize experience" (241). Syson illuminates many connections among the Oresteian Furies, Virgilian Harpies, and Pullman's Underworld-guarding harpies, culminating in the harpies' appeasement as exemplified by their newly-granted right to focus on "truth-filled memories" (247). Part III concludes with Elizabeth A. Manwell's engaging look at the transition from girlhood to womanhood in "Girls in Bears' Clothing in Greek Myth and Disney/Pixar's Brave," which sets forth the film's possible connections with the myths of Callisto, Iphigenia, and Atalanta as well as with the worship of Artemis Brauronia. What sets this chapter apart from others in the volume is its perspective: rather than emphasize classical antecedents as a means to appreciate modern adaptations, Manwell suggests that the modern tale offers instruction on "how to think about the ancient myths," with Brave providing a potential "matrix of Greek bear lore" (265-6) and a new perspective on the ancient Greek coming-of-age literary motifs.

The final three chapters of Part IV, "(Post)Modern Fantasies of Antiquity," show the potential both for finding classical receptions in unexpected places and for questioning traditional understandings of MF. For example, Sasha-Mae Eccleston explains why classicist Anne Carson's imaginary interviews with Mimnermos in "The Brainsex Paintings" from Plainwater constitute "obvious engagements with fantasy," while Eccleston's close readings of Carson's adaptive translations present nuanced arguments as to why elements of fantasy are so crucial to human conceptions of reality. Also providing a fresh perspective is Jennifer Rea's "Aeneas' American New World in Jo Graham's Black Ships," which explores the political possibilities of Graham's retelling of the Aeneid. Rea argues effectively that Graham's re-envisioning of Virgil's epic employs "fantasy's discursive nature to consider narratives about [U.S.] national security" (292), particularly given Graham's adaptation of the poem's conclusion, where a weary post-war Aeneas remains uncertain of the Trojans' future—in contrast to Virgil's emphasis on Rome's future glory. Circling back to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series that formed the basis for Chapter 1, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov's closing chapter examines "Genre, Mimesis, and Virgilian Intertext" in Westeros, "whether or not Martin took Virgil as an explicit literary guide" (311). Lushkov investigates the intertextuality between A Song of Ice and Fire's Renly-Loras episode and Virgil's Nisus-Euryalus episode. In her conclusion, Lushkov provides the most overt statement in the volume about the importance of such a comparative exercise for pedagogical purposes, noting that unexpectedly finding "the presence of a well-known Virgilian theme in this hugely popular text affords us an opportunity to assess the presence of the classics in contemporary culture" by means more subtle than such obvious receptions as Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 film Troy (324).

Although the jargon- and footnote-heavy writing throughout much of the collection will appeal mainly to an academic audience — as it is most likely intended to do — Lushkov closes out the collection by explicitly pointing the way toward classical outreach, something none of the other essays in this volume do. Yet the existence of such volumes as Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy and Classical Traditions in Science Fiction encourages academics to bring their observations about the currency and value of ancient literature into the classroom, connecting "what we do in our scholarship and in the classroom" with the critical skills students should be gaining by study of the ever-endangered but always relevant humanities (324). As eloquently put by Rogers and Stevens, consideration of modern fantasy's receptions of classical literature allows an insight into "our ongoing relationship to what is real, what is possible, what is human"(22).

Authors and titles

Introduction: Fantasies of Antiquity (Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens)
PART I: Classical Apparitions in (Pre-)Modern Fantasy
1. Classical Epic and the Poetics of Modern Fantasy (Jesse Weiner)
2. Theorizing Fantasy: Enchantment, Parody, and the Classical Tradition (Cecilie Flugt)
3. The Mirror Crack'd: Fractured Classicisms in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Illustration (Genevieve S. Gessert)
4. Classical Antiquity and the Timeless Horrors of H. P. Lovecraft (Robinson Peter Krämer)

PART II: False Medievalisms and Other Ancient Fantasies
5. Ancient Underworlds in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (Benjamin Eldon Stevens)
6. C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" and Apuleius' Metamorphoses (Jeffrey T. Winkle)
7. A Time for Fantasy: Retelling Apuleius in C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces (Marcus Folch)

PART III: Children and (Other) Ancient Monsters
8. The Classical Pantheon in Children's Fantasy Literature (Sarah Annes Brown)
9. Orestes and the Half-Blood Prince: Ghosts of Aeschylus in the Harry Potter Series (Brett M. Rogers)
10. Filthy Harpies and Fictive Knowledge in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy (Antonia Syson)
11. Girls in Bears' Clothing in Greek Myth and Disney/Pixar's Brave (Elizabeth A. Manwell)

PART IV: (Post)Modern Fantasies of Antiquity
12. Fantasies of Mimnermos in Anne Carson's "The Brainsex Paintings" (Plainwater) (Sasha-Mae Eccleston)
13. Aeneas' American New World in Jo Graham's Black Ships (Jennifer A. Rea)
14. Genre, Mimesis, and Virgilian Intertext in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (Ayelet Haimson Lushkov)


1.   BMCR 2016.01.34; cf. review by D. Felton in The Classical Journal online 2017.06.10.

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