Tuesday, March 5, 2019


Robert Simms (ed.), Brill's Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic. Brill's Companions to Classical Reception, 15. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xii, 397. ISBN 9789004249356. €187,00. ISBN 9789004360921. ebook.

Reviewed by Ronald Blankenborg, Radboud University Nijmegen (R.Blankenborg@let.ru.nl)

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Where to start in an attempt to offer a companion to prequels, sequels, and retellings of classical epic when the reception of the genre is so ubiquitous and so all-pervading? Robert Simms' edited collection of essays is a daring and stimulating first step, but unfortunately - or should we say necessarily - no more than that. Interesting as many of the contributions are in their own right, the companion as a whole lacks coherence and consistency, more so than other titles in the Brill's Companions to Classical Reception series. 'Classical receptions' appears to be a straightforward enough container for companions, but in the case of classical epic, the scope is simply too wide and too encompassing to allow for an edited volume to be useful as a companion for students' exploration or scholars' study of its reception. Nonetheless, several of the essays in this volume will be well worth the attention of those delving deeper into the various idiosyncratic results of classical epic's invitation to continue the narrative, vary it, or make its treatment suitable for contemporary political and social challenges and requirements. As a whole, the volume is best regarded as an invitation: an incentive to further exploration, by means of isolated examples, of the extent of classical epic's influence on the minds and efforts of composers in all the centuries to follow. Given the length of the volume and the number of essays, this review is of necessity selective.

Brill's Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic, is divided into two parts, followed by an index. The first part, which comprises eleven essays, takes up works of reception more or less related to the Trojan war and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The second part, containing eight chapters, looks beyond Troy and Homer and treats works and authors from Ovid's Metamorphoses to Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia. In his introduction, Simms explains that the reason for the volume lies in epic's being 'replete with story' (Aristotle, Poetics 1456a12). Epic is capable of containing several stories, a feature that facilitates an extensive 'additive' program, such that 'the enterprise itself is prone to incompleteness and indefiniteness' (p. 1). Often, he claims, '[T]he story is incomplete. Historically, the incompleteness of epic has encouraged the production of continuations'. Thus, Simms' volume aims to explore 'the variety of ways the heroic epic narratives have been continued in the Greco-Roman and western classical traditions' (p. 1). The various essays deal with reception works that 'contribute to the open-endedness of epic and the invitation it extends to generations of poets and authors to re-imagine and further the genre's stories. This collection of essays by no means intends a last word' (p. 5).

The essays in this volume constantly remind us that every given literary work is both a hypotext and a hypertext, both the model for, and the product of, reception. To an extent, this even holds true for oral (re)performance of, for example, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Tradition and originality fuel the ongoing production of oral and written literature; reception studies aim to outline the juncture between the two, and to gauge the reasons and choices behind the resulting balance between what was handed over or deliberately copied, and what was added, altered, or newly invented. Thus Elizabeth Minchin clearly shows how Homer's Odyssey picks up story threads from the Iliad, neatly avoiding the Iliad's main narrative events. This rule, known as 'Monro's Law' is broken incidentally, however, when the Odyssey recycles Iliadic story moments, e.g., the evocation of intimacy and trust from earlier times through a story (Il.9.485-491), only to distort it with different intention (Od.16.435-447). Sometimes, Iliadic story details are being recycled: The relationship between Odysseus, Thoas, and Idomeneus, 'neighbors' in the Catalogue of Ships (Il.2.631-652), 'anchors' their appearance in Odysseus' lying tales in the Odyssey (13.256-286, 14.192-359, 499-502, 19.165-202, 221-248, 262-307, 336-342).

The Iliad is similarly 'continued' in the Ilias Latina and in Triphiodorus' The Sack of Troy, as is argued by Reinhold Glei and Orestis Karavas, respectively. Calum Maciver shows how Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica tries 'to be Homer' through removing any signs of 'lateness' (pp. 74-75). John Tzetzes' Carmina Iliaca had another aim, according to Marta Cardin: Tzetzes wanted to provide students with an introduction to Homer's Iliad. Questions of hypotext, intertext, and hypertext become especially important in Francine Mora-Lebrun's analysis of the way in which Dares' and Dictys' 'historical' prosaic account of the Trojan war inspired Joseph of Exeter to 'teach the powerful lords of his time' with a 'historical truth' (pp. 121-122) used by his Ylias. In his essay on Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, Nickolas Haydock links the author's deliberately vague 'invention' of the hypertext, rightly in my view, to what is today typically called 'fan fiction':1 in the intricate altercation between the various levels of transtextuality,2 Haydock argues, theories should account for 'the ways intermediate texts shape the response of a later text to an earlier one' (p. 141), much as his essay focuses on the intermediate intertexts between Chaucer's Troilus and Creseyde and Henryson's Testament.

Political motivations behind epic continuations are discussed in Adam Goldwyn's contribution on genealogical histories in the eleventh to thirteenth century, and Jardar Lohne's on Fénelon's Télémaque. A more philological approach is chosen by the authors of the two final chapters of part 1. Martha Klironomos explains Nikos Kazantzakis' 33,333-line Odysseia (1938) as the writer's attempt ('an avowed demoticist') to revise and modernize the Homeric epic, and turn it into a tale of 'disciplined violence', in modern Greek vernacular, rich in the use of regional words. Kazantzakis thus creates a hero who liberated himself from all plans and systems. A similar psychological approach to the multifariousness of an epic character is found in Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. Buket Akgün shows how Atwood's retelling from a gendered perspective dismantles Homer's patriarchic discourse and deprives it of its power by providing the narrative of the heretofore silenced and repressed female characters.3

Part 2 of the volume opens with Marie Louise von Glinski's analysis of Ovid's Metamorphoses as a rewriting of the epic tradition. She argues that Ovid's 'closural continuation constricts all his predecessors in this tradition to simultaneity', while at the same time inviting successors to spot opportunities for completion and invention. The next five contributions deal with continuations of Latin epic. Neil Bernstein traces the Aeneid in Ovid, Lucan, and Silius Italicus, Anne Rogerson in Vegio's Supplement (1428). Giovanni Battista Pio's supplement to Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica is explained by Emma Buckley as a reaction to the latter's incompleteness. Robert Simms discusses the parodic feminization of Caesar in Thomas May's Supplementum Lucani. Politics re-enter the discourse with Antony Augoustakis' contribution on Thomas Ross' continuations of Silius Italicus' Punica: Ross presents both great Roman heroes and several powerful females, but his exempla of valor and tender conjugal love did not earn him a position as king Charles II's court-poet. The final two essays present 'Homeric efforts' and retellings. Kristin Lindfield-Ott introduces three epics from Scotland: Wilkie's Epigoniad, Hamilton's Wallace, and Macpherson's Highlander, epics on Scottish content in Scottish language. Highlander was Macpherson's attempt to rival the so-called Ossianic Collections, a reputedly Gaelic epic-like collection of stories and myths, found and edited for publication by Macpherson himself, that started a true revival of epic writing in Scotland. Finally, and balancing Akgün's essay on Atwood, Nickolas Haydock, the only contributor with two essays in the volume, discusses Ursula Le Guin's novel Lavinia (2008): a gender reversal in the relation of Aeneas and Lavinia, now that she is the one who knows the future, and struggles with foreknowledge.

In its attempt to explore and describe, the present volume is not sufficiently clear in its internal organization, its level of approach, and its intended readership. Internally, the division into two parts is merely practical: The choice to organize contributions around the themes 'Homer/Troy' and 'Beyond Homer/Troy' is not always fortunate, considering, for example, the 'Homeric efforts' in Scotland. Rather, it highlights what is a problem in the conception of a volume like this—understandable and seemingly unavoidable though it is: looking at prequels, sequels, and retellings of classical epic is too broad an approach. Each of the subcategories—prequels, sequels, and retellings, supplemented by continuations, translations, and fan fiction—deserves a volume of its own, given the wealth of hyper-, inter-, and hypotexts available, and so do the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Epic Cycle, and all the individual works of Latin epic. That way, the mer à boire to be taken into account would better serve a companion to the readers of a hypotext.

Several of the essays, especially those on reception pieces considered to be less well known to classicists, are rather descriptive and introductory, whereas contributions on, for example, the Posthomerica, Atwood's Penelopiad, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Aeneid, and the Odyssey as hypertext are scholarly, and thoroughly analytical. The diversity of level and approach raises questions concerning the volume's intended readership. The topics and many of the observations will be interesting to students and scholars as well as the general public, but the uneven level of the articles makes it hard to recommend the volume as a whole to any one group.

Unfortunately, the companion suffers from editorial insufficiency. Since the introduction does not aim to provide a clear methodology, the contributions would have benefitted from lavish cross-referencing: opportunities for such helpful suggestions abound, but as a whole the volume contains only two cross-references between chapters (p. 298 n10, p. 336 line 7). There is also a fair number of infelicities and typos, and some of the articles appear to have had little or no editing.4

In conclusion, it feels fair to recommend individual articles to those with special interests, especially the contributions aimed at students and scholars working on the reception of Homeric epic, looking for a companion to sequels of the Iliad and Odyssey, or for the analysis of the Homeric epic as hypo- or hypertext. Considered as a whole, the volume emphasizes the need for an effort by the publisher to extend the Companions to Classical Reception series with separate issues each exploring one of the aspects of 'continuation' with regard to only one of the classical epics.

Authors and Titles

Introduction / Robert Simms

The Odyssey after the Iliad: Ties That Bind / Elizabeth Minchin
The Ilias Latina as a Roman Continuation of the Iliad / Reinhold F. Glei
Triphiodorus' The Sack of Troy and Colluthus' The Rape of Helen: A Sequel and a Prequel for Late Antiquity / Orestis Karavas
Program and Poetics in Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica / Calum A. Maciver
Teaching Homer through (Annotated) Poetry: John Tzetzes' Carmina Iliaca / Marta Cardin
Joseph of Exeter: Troy through Dictys and Dares / Francine Mora-Lebrun
Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid: Transtextual Tragedy / Nickolas A. Haydock
Trojan Pasts, Medieval Presents: Epic Continuation in Eleventh to Thirteenth Century Genealogical Histories / Adam J. Goldwyn
Epic Continuation as Basis for Moral Education: The Télémaque of Fénelon / Jardar Lohne
Nikos Kazantzakis' Odysseia: The Epic Sequel in Modern Greek Poetry and Classical Reception / Martha Klironomos
Spinning a Thread of One's from Homer to Atwood / Buket Akgün

Part 2:
Squaring the Epic Cycle: Ovid's Rewriting of the Epic Tradition in the Metamorphoses / Mary Louise von Glinski
Continuing the Aeneid in the First Century: Ovid's "Little Aeneid", Lucan's Bellum civile, and Silius Italicus' Punica / Neil W. Bernstein
Vegio's Supplement: Classical Learning, Christian Readings / Anne Rogerson
Ending the Argonautica: Giovanni Battista Pio's Argonautica-Supplement / Emma Buckley
Redressing Caesar as Dido in Thomas May's Continuations of Lucan / Robert Simms
Thomas Ross' Translation and Continuation of Silius Italicus' Punica in the English Restoration / Antony Augoustakis
Epic Scotland: Wilkie, Macpherson and Other Homeric Efforts / Kristin Lindfield-Ott
Virgil Mentor: Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia / Nickolas A. Haydock


1.   Cf. S.K. Farley, 'Versions of Homer: Translation, Fan Fiction, and Other Transformative Rewritings', Transformative Works and Cultures 21 (2016).
2.   'All that sets the text in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts.' (G. Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, Lincoln, NE (1997): 3.
3.   Interesting recent examples of 'reversing' reception pieces are, e.g., Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles (2012), exploring the role of love in the epic warrior code, and Colm Tóibín's House of Names (2016) that deals with the engendered response to the atrocity of Iphigeneia's sacrifice. The notion of reversal in the reception of classical epic is sometimes unexpectedly or unwantedly evoked, as evidenced by, e.g., the response in reviews and social media to the casting of the television series Troy: Fall of a City (2018).
4.   P.128 n62 remains incomprehensible. Lohne's article on Fénelon's Télémaque is very difficult to follow because of insufficient editing: Quotations from the hypertext are cited without reference, page and line numbers. In the bibliography to von Glinski's essay, chapters from Roberts, Dunn, and Fowler (1997) are cross-referenced as 'Fowler (1997)'; in Bernstein's, publishers are mentioned in addition to place of issue; in Buckley's, some authors are cited with full first name, others are not. In addition, Baier and Schimann (1997) should have been given a separate entry.

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