The Iliad tells the story of the Greek hero Achilles’ anger after Briseis, a woman he’s taken captive as his ‘prize’ after sacking her city, is taken away from him by Agamemnon, and the disasters that strike the Greek army after Achilles withdraws from the fighting over this slight. Briseis herself doesn’t feature much in the poem; she’s only mentioned ten times, and only speaks once, to mourn the death of Patroclus, who, she says, was kind to her after her capture by Achilles (19.282ff). Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls (2018) gives us Briseis’ version of the Iliad: the story of the war told from the point of view of one of the many women who lose their homes, families, and freedom at the hands of the Homeric ‘heroes’. It’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written in mostly very simple language that manages to shift seamlessly in and out of near-translations or Homeric references when recounting key moments from the poem: Barker uses this to particularly strong effect when she recreates a Homeric battle-scene — a long list of men suffering gruesome deaths interspersed with small details about their lives or their final moments — then subverts it by giving the alternative version of their story: the one told by their female relatives after their death to their fellow-slaves. Continue reading “The Silence of the Girls – review”
“We have always made monsters: in art, in myth, in religion; out of clay or bronze, pixels or hybrid flesh; from the stuff of human nightmares; by cursing women with bestial traits. This anthology brings together fiction and accessible academic writing in conversation about monsters and their roles in our lives—and ours in theirs.”
So says the blurb from the back cover of Making Monsters. A collaboration between Emma Bridges (Public Engagement Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies) and Djibril al-Ayad (a speculative-fiction editor and publisher), it’s an anthology collecting a mixture of short stories, poems, and essays about (mostly) classical Greek and Roman monsters and our responses to them. Medusa, as shown on the wonderful cover illustration, and Sirens seem to be the most popular of the monsters – and are used by many of the entries to explore the ways in which women in particular are viewed as monsters – but the Furies, Circe the sorceress, and Talos the bronze giant all make appearances too, and there are even some monsters from further afield like the Japanese tengu. It’s a wonderfully varied collection – some of my favourites are Megan Arkenberg‘s re-imagining of Danae as an inventor of living mechanical creations that I would have loved to have seen animated by Ray Harryhausen; L. Chan‘s “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement”, in which a harassed Singaporean civil servant attempts to get a group of monsters to agree to relocate from the locations they haunt; and Margaret McLeod‘s poem “Helen of War”, putting a different spin on the mythological tradition that says that Helen of Troy never went to Troy at all. There’s definitely something for everyone in this anthology, and I’d highly recommend getting hold of a copy to anyone who likes mythology and/or speculative fiction!
Claire Jackson started off this week’s GIS with a paper on ‘Ancient Fiction and Forgery in Antonius Diogenes’. After explaining some of the problems with studying the concept of ‘fiction’ in the ancient world, she looked specifically at Antonius Diogenes’ novel τα ὑπὲρ Θούλην ἀπίστια (‘The Unbelievable Things Beyond Thule’ – Thule being a semi-mythical land located somewhere to the north of Europe), which survives only in fragments and a plot summary by Photius. This summary reveals the strategies used by the author to present the novel as ‘documentary’, backed up by authentic sources, but simultaneously to undermine that status by referring to these claims as false.
I’ve been meaning to write a review of this book for ages, since it’s not only one of my favourite Classics-based books, but also definitely has a place in my (long) list of favourite books ever – as the many of you to whom I’ve recommended it already know!
‘The Lost Books of the Odyssey’ is the literary debut of Zachary Mason, a computer scientist from California who wrote it in his spare time after work (don’t you just hate some people?). It’s a collection of forty-four stories, most of which are loosely constructed around episodes, characters and themes from the Odyssey (there are also a few based on the Iliad, and on other Greek myths) – the premise being that these are remnants of the epic tradition as it was before the canonisation of the Homeric versions of these stories. (The preface claims it to be a translation of a papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus, which ties in quite nicely with all our discussions last term about creating authority through ‘translation’.)