Who’s afraid of the ancient classics?

Have you read Homer’s Odyssey? If you haven’t, don’t feel bad. While there are some classics that most students read in high school English classes – The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, The Outsider – there are others that seem beyond the reach of most readers well into adulthood.

These are the ancient classics, of which the most famous (but still rarely read) include the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid and Metamorphosis.

However, on Twitter, you could be forgiven for believing that only the most ignorant did not have a strong grasp on the storyline of these ancient classics.

A couple of weeks ago a tweet from Rachael Meager (@ecomeager) appeared in my feed:

“ladies imagine this. it’s 20 years from now. your husband still has not returned from the war. your new suitors have invaded your home and your son is useless at turfing them out. you’re weaving a burial shroud so they can’t marry you. one day an old beggar arrives at the door.”

Thousands of those who ‘got’ the reference to Homer’s Odyssey liked and retweeted the comment. It was only in reading the comments that I understood the allusion to the classic. While Rachael was quick to stamp out intellectual snobbery and defend those who had not read the classic, others wasted no time in smugly asserting they were in on the joke.

Modern interest in ancient classics

Beyond Twitter, there has been a resurgence of interest in the works of Homer, Ovid and Sophocles. In the recently published Circe, Madeline Miller reimagines the Odyssey, focusing on the character of Circe, a witch in exile.  As a guide to its mainstream appeal, it is sold not just in specialty bookstores, but also in Big W. It was also Miller who created an international sensation in 2011 with her debut novel, a reimagining of the Iliad called The Song of Achilles.

Meanwhile, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a modern reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone, was this month awarded the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017.

Academics and more mainstream readers internationally have welcomed the first major translation of the Odyssey by a woman, Emily Wilson, praising the author as bringing a new understanding of the original text. According to The Telegraph, this translation ‘combines intellectual authority with truly addictive readability’.

But, what is the value of reading either translations of ancient texts or their modern reimagining, when so many exciting, new books are released every year? Is it worth the battle to understand the cultural references, unfamiliar language (when it even takes time to settle into the phrasing and vocabulary of the Brontes or Jane Austen) and sometimes confusing mysticism of these texts, when we could be reading modern books that help us more deeply understand our times?

Continuing relevance

One reason why it might be well worth exploring the ancient classics is in their ongoing cultural relevance – in many ways they continue to be of our times. In these books timeless themes, including identity, belonging, human motivation, love, temptation, conflict and courage are explored. The reference to ancient classics in many films and books, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to the decidedly mainstream movies, Troy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? suggests that the ideas and themes of these works remain relevant, providing readers with guidance on how to live today.

A captivating history lesson

Ancient classics also provide a fascinating glimpse of times past, and the customs and beliefs of those who lived long before us. Through literature written nearly three millennia ago, we can learn about the spiritual beliefs and gods, mythology, societal norms, language, and nature of conflict in ancient times. All of this is presented, not in the form of a textbook or a lecture, but within a compelling narrative that is sometimes bloody and sometimes bizarre – who wouldn’t be interested in a story in which characters blind a cyclops and get turned into pigs?

Savour the language

It might take a while, but it is possible to be swept away in the beautiful language of these ancient poets. Like many older texts, the vocabulary initially seems foreign and the poetic form of some of these books can take some getting used to, but it is worth it when you settle in to the rhythm, majesty and beauty of the stories. There is no need to labour over every word or allusion; it is better to pick up on the general storyline until you feel more comfortable with the style and language.

So, next time you’re at the library or the bookstore, perhaps you should linger over the ancient classics and their modern reimaginings, not in order to understand the latest clever tweet, but to enjoy the fantastical tales and gain the insights into modern and ancient life that these stories conceived so long ago offer. Good luck!

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