Prequels, sequels, retellings

Building on Classical heroic epic

Many ancient Greek and Roman epics were left either unfinished or had enough loose strings to warrant continuation by later writers.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Many of the stories familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans were transmitted orally. Only some of these stories were ever committed to papyrus, and of the ones that were only a few have managed to survive to the present day. For example, we know the story of the Trojan War, including several variations of certain episodes, but outside of fairly large works like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid, most of what we know comes either from summaries in other sources, scattered fragments of poems that are now (mostly) lost, or from ancient art.

Brill’s Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic (2018), edited by Robert Simms, focuses on the literary tradition of continuing and, where necessary, finishing ancient heroic epics. As Simms states in his introduction, epic poetry “is capable of containing several stories, a feature that facilitates its extensive ‘additive’ program, such that the enterprise is prone to incompleteness and indefiniteness” (p. 1). Hence, for example, Virgil was able to continue in his Aeneid where Homer left off.

The volume collects a total of 19 distinct chapters, written by a diverse group of academics, including specialists in English literature as well as Latin and Greek. Chronologically, the chapters range from the ancient world through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the present. The focus is entirely on literature; no chapters are devoted to continuations or retellings of ancient heroic epic in other media, such as (modern) works of art or film, nor is there a scholarly treatment of, for example, Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze. Considering that the book already weighs in at 400 pages, its focus is certainly understandable.

The volume is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the story of the Trojan War and on continuations of Homer in particular. I cannot go into detail with every contribution in this volume, but I’ll go through each of them briefly so that you’ll have an idea of this book’s contents.

Trojan and Homeric continuations

The very first chapter in part I, written by Elizabeth Minchin, deals – naturally, I would say – with the Odyssey. More specifically compares and contrasts it, regarding the Iliad as a poem that looks ahead, while the Odyssey looks back. I particularly liked her observation that the fact that large parts of the Odyssey are narrated in the first person (with Odysseus himself speaking) makes it a fundamentally different kind of story than the Iliad.

A few chapters shine a light on little-known ancient poems that deal with the Trojan War. Reinhold Glei deals with the Ilias Latina, while Orestis Karavas’s focuses on both a sequel (Triphiodorus’ short Sack of Troy) and a prequel (Colluthus’ Rape of Helen). I wasn’t very familiar with any of these poems, so these contributions were welcome.

More familiar territory in the form of Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica is the subject of Calum Maciver’s chapter. He focuses on a number of particular scenes in order to illustrate how Quintus strove, “meta-poetically”, to “encode the epic distance the Posthomerica has from Homer” (p. 71). This is a solid chapter that effectively places Quintus’ work – and by extension any (late) writers who worked in the epic tradition – in its appropriate context, underscoring the changes in literary tradition that separate Homer from those who worked in Late Antiquity.

The remaining chapters of the first part of Brill’s Companion move the discussion beyond the ancient world and into the medieval one. The authors discussed are the Byzantine poet and grammarian John Tzetzes (Marta Cardin), Joseph of Exeter (Francine Mora-Lebrun), and Robert Henryson (Nickolas A. Haydock). I especially liked Haydock’s wide-ranging and erudite discussion of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. Adam Goldwin deals with genealogical histories of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, including an old favourite of mine: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. I also learned that Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda includes references to the Trojan War. As Goldwin puts it, “the Trojan War was used to legitimize political authority even in places never under Roman rule” (p. 164), like Iceland.

Passing into the modern era, Jardar Lohne writes about the Télémaque (for short) by François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. In Fénelon’s retelling of the story of Telemachus, the young man’s journey in search of information about his father “becomes one of education, preparing him for the royal duties to come” (p. 175).

Martha Klironomos then turns our attention to the greatest modern Greek poet, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), and specifically his poem Odysseia, which begins right after Odysseus has revealed himself and slaughtered all the suitors in his palace. Unfortunately, all quotes from Kazantzakis’s text are rendered in translation. As Klironomos emphasizes Kazantzakis’s linguistic virtuosity, I would have preferred to have been able to read some of it for myself without having to take recourse to another book. (Some of the chapters elsewhere in the book, like those by Rogerson, Buckley, and Simms in Part II, feature both the original text as well as the translations.)

Next, Buket Akgun deals with Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which she characterizes as “a gendered continuation of Homer’s epic the Odyssey” (p. 206), thereby casting much-needed new light on what were hitherto “silenced and repressed characters” (p. 221). It’s a good way to end this first part and serves as a counterbalance to the next part’s final chapter, which deals with another modern female writer, Ursula Le Guin.

Beyond Troy and Homer

The second part of the volume looks beyond Troy and Homer. Like the first part, the chapters are arranged in chronological order. Hence, Marie Louise von Glinski’s chapter deals with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, cast not just as a retelling of elements of heroic epic, but more specifically as a kind of reply to, but not a full continuation of, Virgil’s Aeneid. Neil Bernstein sticks with the Romans of the first century AD and writes about Ovid, Lucan, and Silius Italicus.

We then skip to the late medieval period with Anne Rogerson’s chapter that deals, broadly speaking, with how writers dealt with the pagan nature of a work like Virgil’s Aeneid in a decidedly Christian culture. Her main point centres on the problems and concerns Gavin Douglas had, who was the first poet to render the Aeneid into a British language (Middle Scots). Her conclusion struck a note with me (p. 291):

The story of the Supplement in scholarship shows us how much we still have to understand about the ways in which Classical literature was read and appropriated in the past, and how differently it was read from the ways in which we read it in the western traditions of the early twenty-first century.

We remain in the realms of supplements with Emma Buckley’s discussion of Giovanni Battista Pio’s continuation of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. After so many pages of dealing with the Trojan War, a chapter that dealt with the story of the Argonauts hit me like a breath of fresh air. Perhaps surprisingly, the chapter fits in well with the others in this book, and not just because Maffeo Vegio, introduced in the previous chapter by Rogerson, makes a reappearance.

The next two chapters deal with (pseudo-)history rather than straight-up epic. Robert Simm’s contribution deals with the continuation by Thomas May (d. 1650) of Lucan’s unfinished Bellum Civile. May’s Latin Supplementum was so highly regarded that it was published as part of Lucan’s history for more than two hundred years. Simms argues that May modelled Caesar after Virgil’s Dido, which is an interesting argument, the merits of which I don’t feel like I can judge well without diving into the material myself. The next chapter is by Antony Agoustakis’s chapter and deals with Thomas Ross’s treatment of Silius Italicus’ Punica, a Latin epic poem that deals with the Second Punic War, featuring Hannibal.

Kristin Lindfield-Ott’s chapter is on “epic Scotland”, and more particular the epic poetry that was produced in the country from mid-eighteenth century onwards. Scottisch epics focused particularly on the exploits of heroes like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Naturally, Scottish poets drew inspiration from Classical Greek and Latin epics.

The final chapter of this part of the book, as well as the volume as a whole, is Nickolas A. Haydock’s “Virgil mentor: Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia”. Matthew Lloyd read and reviewed the book for Ancient World Magazine, so readers might already be familiar with Le Guin’s novel. As Haydock puts it, Le Guin’s novel “deserves serious critical attention as among the best of recent attempts to novelize ancient epic from an uncanny perspective” (p. 375) – that “uncanny perspective”, of course, being supplied by Lavinia. Notably, Le Guin depicts “women as playing a part in war, not as a metaphor for the suspension of reason […] and not as gender-bending warriors […], but as individuals who work and pray and suffer and survive behind the walls of Troy” (p. 389).

Closing thoughts

Brill’s Companion to Prequels, Sequels, and Retellings of Classical Epic offers an excellent collection of chapters on a diverse range of topics. The book as a whole gives a good idea of how, in particular, the story of the Trojan War has been retold and repurposed throughout the course of human history, from deliberately archaizing (but informed) continuations like Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica to the use of heroic bloodlines to legitimize contemporary rule in medieval genealogies.

Unfortunately, the book, as normal for anything produced by Brill, is very expensive to purchase: it will set you back $200 or around €180. That’s a shame, since a cheap paperback edition would be of value to a wider audience. While the subject matter is academic, all of the chapters are well-written and intelligible; I don’t think anyone would have problems getting to grips with the text, and modern readers of, for example, Atwood or Le Guin would find much to like here.

So the bottom line is that I thoroughly recommend the book. But if you want to read it, it’s probably best to check your nearest academic library to see if they have it in stock and borrow it from there. It’s worth the effort.