TACOMA, Wash. – “Once upon a time,” begins many a tale, and so, in effect, begins every fantasy ever written—from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. For fantasy, by definition, asks us to imagine what seems impossible. Its story unfolds in a world very different from our own.
Scholars Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, in their new book, Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy (Oxford University Press, January 2017), set out to convince readers that such fantasies, created ever since ancient times, not only enchant, but help us learn more about ourselves.
“Full of unreal creatures and elements, hard to get one’s hands—and head—around, always changing forms, tones, and meanings: Modern fantasy offers delight and the prospect of great insight into our ongoing relationship to what is real, what is possible, what is human,” the two editors write in the book’s introduction.
Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy is the first collection of essays in English focused on how modern fantasy draws deeply on ancient Greek and Roman mythology, philosophy, literature, history, art, and cult practice. The 15 essays are intended for both scholars and readers of fantasy.
Earlier the two editors published Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (Oxford University Press), which was named a 2015 Times Higher Education Book of the Year. For this book Rogers and Stevens were also awarded the Society for Classical Studies 2016 Outreach Prize, which honors “outstanding projects” by its members that “make an aspect of classical antiquity available or attractive” to audiences who are part of the general public. Brett Rogers is associate professor of classics at University of Puget Sound and Benjamin Stevens is visiting assistant professor of classics at Trinity University.
The 15 essays, by authors from the United States, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain, explore significant examples of the modern fantasy genre—including the works of H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Disney’s Brave, and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series—scrutinizing their relationship to important ancient texts such as Aeschylus' Oresteia, Aristotle's Poetics, Virgil's Aeneid, and Apuleius' The Golden Ass.
Ranging from harpies to hobbits, from cyclopes to Cthulhu, and all manner of monster and myth in-between, the comparative study of classics and fantasy reveals deep similarities between ancient and modern ways of imagining the world.
“Broad-ranging and accessible, Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy should interest readers of both fantasy and myth,” writes Brian Attebery, professor of English at Idaho State University and editor of Journal of the Fantastic in Arts. “The collection does two very important things: it traces an ancient and honorable lineage for the modern form of fantasy and at the same time shows why the old myths (and the anxieties and philosophical dilemmas they embody) continue to occupy and entertain us.”
The book’s essays raise fascinating questions as they explore fundamental ways in which ancient materials appear in—or even haunt—the early stages of modern fantasy. The authors analyze how modern writers, such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were inspired by visual art from earlier times, by ancient underworlds, or by Greek and Roman myths. They look at traces of the mythical Orestes in Harry Potter, and, tantalizingly, they reverse the book’s primary question, asking instead how the study of modern fiction might clarify and magnify our understanding of classical texts. Readers are led on a tour of the timeless philosophical, historical, sociological, and cultural gold hidden in the fantasy stories that grip millions of readers and viewers today.
Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy is available in hardcover and paperback through various online booksellers, and as an e-book. It is stocked in the University of Puget Sound Bookstore.
Brett M. Rogers is associate professor of classics at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. He is co-editor of Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2015). His research focuses on poetics and performance in Greek poetry and drama, as well as classical receptions in contemporary media. He has published on a wide range of subjects, from Homer and classical drama, to myth theory in superhero narratives to a classical analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Benjamin Eldon Stevens is visiting assistant professor of classics at Trinity University. He is co-editor of Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2015) and the author of Silence in Catullus (University of Wisconsin, 2013). He has written articles on Latin poetry, linguistics, the senses in culture, and comics, in addition to classical receptions. Stevens has taught at Bryn Mawr College, Hollins University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Bard College, including with the Bard Prison Initiative.
To purchase Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy (hardcover or paperback) visit: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/classical-traditions-in-modern-fantasy-9780190610050?lang=en&cc=us
Press photos of the co-authors and the book cover can be downloaded from pugetsound.edu/pressphotos.
Photos on page: From top right: Book cover; Benjamin Eldon Stevens (left) and Brett M. Rogers at the Society for Classical Studies 2016 ceremony where they were honored for their earlier book Classical Traditions in Science Fiction; La Donna della Fiamma, by Dante Gabriel Charles Rossetti, painter and poet, whose work was influenced by classical sources (public domain photo).
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