Classical Antiquity Made Contemporary

I fell in love with retold tales of classical antiquity as a young teen, when I found a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand (1987) in Second Read Books, a tiny used bookshop tucked around the backside of downtown St. Augustine. Its story is the Trojan War from the perspective of Cassandra, the doomed seer who foretells the whole war but is never believed. (Bradley had previously published her hugely popular Arthurian retelling, The Mists of Avalon. I tried to read it a few years later but it never quite hooked me. The mid- to late 90s were heavy with Arthurian legend; I remember First Knight, the Merlin tv miniseries, and a small press Arthurian lesbian romance tucked away on a shelf somewhere that I read in snatches, no pun intended.)

In college we were required to read a lot of Greek and Roman literature (in modern translation); I wrote papers on Odysseus’s misogyny and the cycles of feminine violence in the Oresteia. I was assigned to read Anne Carson and soon devoured everything of hers I could find. Plainwater was the first and my favorite. In grad school I was assigned H.D. and was surprised to find her unmistakeable but unmentioned influence on Carson. Helen in Egypt begins with Stesichorus, as does Autobiography of Red, but Carson avoids invoking H.D., even as she writes of her contemporaries.

On a research retreat I fell in love with H.D.’s scrapbook, which juxtaposes ancient Greek statuary with photos of H.D.’s family and homes. I created an art book attempting to remix the images with the words of her poems; fragments from her early work printed onto onionskin paper overlay the later scrapbook collage images. (Someday I hope to digitize my version and publish on it, a companion to the Mina Loy interactive text adventure I made.)

A page from H.D.’s scrapbook

There’s no shortage of literature where women reclaim and retell the masculine epics and legends of antiquity. Mary Renault comes to mind; between 1956 and 1981 she published eight historical novels about ancient Athens and Alexander the Great. Madeline Miller has somewhat taken up Renault’s torch in the early 21st century. Her first two novels, The Song of Achilles and Circe, retell The Iliad and The Odyssey, respectively, from the alternate viewpoints of the heroes’ lovers.

Circe threw me wildly for a loop, as I found myself crying over Odysseus (forgiven, I suppose, for the misogyny I accused him of in college). Miller incorporates later material from Hesiod’s Theogony and the lost epic Telegony, though she judiciously ends the story before the old Greek cycle of violence can set in. The final family grouping, haunted by the memory of war-crazed Odysseus, touched me deeply. Reviewers have criticized Miller for her YA-like, romance novel-adjacent approach to her source material, but I’m in favor of it. I began with Bradley, after all.