Greeks Bearing Gifts

interview-with-madeline-millerI read the Odyssey in high school and bits and pieces of the Iliad in high school and college. I read some Greek drama over the course of my education and I’m familiar with the usual mythology. But in general it was never my thing. I’m totally a mythology and folklore junkie but for some reason the Greco-Roman variety never really spoke to me.

When I fist heard of Madeline Miller’s work I wasn’t particularly interested in it. Sure I remember the figures of Achilles and Circe from the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, but I had no desire to revisit them. However when I saw both novels praised extensively by reviewers who also professed to have little interest in the Greek Classics I became slightly curious, but I still had the sense that it would end up being the kind of thing that I’d  end up being disappointed in due to overhype.

Well, I admit it. I was wrong. I actually read Circe first. It comes second chronologically but since both books are essentially stand alone, it doesn’t really matter which you read first. I found that Miller had told a very human story featuring witches, gods and monsters. Song of Achilles focus more on “human” characters (with a few exceptions) but turns the Trojan war into the setting for a beautiful love story between the titular hero and his longtime (male) companion Patroclus.

After reading these books I did what I always do after reading something great: I googled the author.  I discovered several essays that she wrote, including one about adapting existing works. Though in the essay Miller writes about adapting the Greek Classics, I think that what she says encompasses everything from classic literature to mythology and folklore. She writes about feeling like writing adaptations is cheating somehow:

When I was a teenager, the thought of a classical story being rewritten sent me into a rage. I cherished the ancient Greeks’ myths deeply, and adaptations seemed like nothing but assault: an unnecessary adulteration of something that was already perfect. Why rewrite Homer, I thought, when you can re-read the original? Adaptations were an admission of artistic laziness. Couldn’t these authors find something original to write about?

 

She started to write Song of Achilles while she was directing a production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in college. The play is Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan war,  so Miller figured it was permissible for Shakespeare to adapt,  because it was a play: it was being retold for a different artistic medium. But seeing it acted made her think about the voice of a character she hadn’t heard from and she started to write. She was embarrassed by what she was doing: her (now ex) boyfriend contemptuously called it “Homeric fan fiction.”
This struck me because I had a similar feeling when I was writing Beautiful. I felt like because I was retelling the Beauty and the Beast story, I wasn’t original. I was tackling a story that had been retold so many times. But like Miller, I felt like I had something to say about it.
As she wrote, Miller discovered other authors that had written innovative work adapting Homer:
Not one of these authors seeks to supplant Homer, but to engage and illuminate him. They do what adaptation does at its very best: stand brilliantly on its own, while inspiring a fresh look at the original. And there is absolutely nothing lazy about any of it – all those works show how the authors steeped themselves in the source material, and how thoughtfully they approached it. Besides, if I had been thinking straight from the beginning, I would have realised that some of my favourite ancient authors are themselves adapters – Virgil’s Aeneid is based on the Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses draws on everyone from Homer to Virgil himself.
I think that while Greek Classics are never going to be my favorite genre, this author sees  and understands what’s beautiful about literary adaptation. To me that’s something exciting. I’m eager for her future work.

7 thoughts on “Greeks Bearing Gifts

  1. I’m a fan of retellings, but then I grew up being shown the good aspects of them. I loved West Side Story when I was young, and loved the fact that it was Romeo and Juliet for the “modern” age. I guess it all depends on how you are initially introduced to the idea of retelling a classic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm… That’s an interesting point. I think I was introduced to retellings through different versions of fairy tales. I’d compare and contrast different tellings of stories in different ways. It was one of my pastimes when I was a kid (I was a strange child…) I also liked comparing book and film adaptations. I think my fondness from retellings comes from that. But I can see where someone might have a negative perception of it, if you look at it only as “stealing someone else’s story/work”

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