“Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman— A little month, or ere those shoes were old with which she follow'd my poor father's body Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she— O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2, 145-151)Many writers spent their childhoods reading one book after another, totally absorbed in imaginary worlds as they tried to escape the reality of being small and helpless. I wasn’t one of them. The books I was given at primary school to read were so dull that I lost interest and looked to films and toys to provide my flights of fancy instead.
This all changed when I read The Lord of the Rings at the age of 14, after which I became an avid bookworm. But as my reading became wider and began to include more literary classics, I felt gaps appearing in my understanding of the texts. These gaps included the many biblical references in older books (I wasn’t brought up in a church-going family, so my knowledge of the Bible was poor), and the frequent, almost throwaway, mentions of mythological names, such as Shakespeare’s “like Niobe, all tears” quoted above.
Like pretty shells scattered across a beach, they had, for me, a romantic sense of mystery. Who was Niobe and why was she crying? But Shakespeare doesn’t say. Neither do the other giants of literature—Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Wilde, Joyce, Eliot—as they name-drop the heroes and demi-gods of Greek mythology with the assumption that their audiences will be familiar with them. So it both frustrated and intrigued me as I encountered glimpses of characters and stories that British state education in the 70s and 80s hadn’t prepared me for.
|Niobid Painter: Artemis and Apollo killing Niobe's children|
By opting for a “classical” education - wanting to scratch the itch that had been left by Shakespeare and others years before—I was embarking on a study of something ancient, foreign and exotic, but at the same time quintessentially British. There is a deep affinity between the British and the ancient Greeks. It’s so normal we barely even notice it: the Doric style columns that adorn Victorian railway stations, the Greek words that smatter our language, and the fact we’re a democracy. But there are similarities in our national experience, too, especially with the Classical Athenians. Our language has become universal. Our wealth once came from maritime trade, protected by a powerful navy. We had an empire that moulded the modern world
It seems natural, then, that the British have a special appreciation for the ancient Greeks. This is never more obvious than in our literature. Many of our greatest writers were classically educated and were familiar with the history, culture, politics and art of the ancient world, as well as being able to read Greek and Latin texts. I’ve already mentioned the habit of British authors, playwrights and poets of liberally referring to characters from Greek mythology. It’s a way of conversing on another level with readers and audiences who, in those days, understood the references.
Name-dropping of this kind is useful for contrasting and comparing, such as the distinction Hamlet makes between his mother’s false tears and those of Niobe. To evoke such characters and their stories gives depth to the scene that the writer is trying to convey. By merely naming Niobe, Shakespeare puts an image in his audience’s mind of a woman devastated by grief (and thus shows the falseness of Gertrude’s tears, at least in Hamlet’s eyes). It wasn’t so long ago that audiences understood the references.
Such is the authority given by the Classics that some of our greatest writers have often begun their works by calling on one of the Greek Muses - the nine goddesses who symbolised the arts and sciences (Milton’s in Paradise Lost is Urania, the Muse of Astronomy).
Renaissance in the 14th-century, though which had probably continued uninterrupted since the days of the Roman Empire.
One of the greatest influences on British literature from Greek mythology is Homer and the Trojan War. George Chapman’s partial translation of the Iliad in 1598 inspired Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. One of the most famous quotes about the Trojan War, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,” came from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in 1604. Fast-forwarding, the Iliad was a favourite of the Great War poets, some of whom read Homer’s epic in the Dardanelles while waiting to storm the beaches of Gallipoli. Considered by some to be the greatest literary work of the 20th century, James Joyce’s Ulysses sets the characters and incidents of the Odyssey in modern Dublin. More recently, Derek Walcott’s Omeros — a loose retelling of the Odyssey set in St Lucia — effectively won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among the less direct references are Lyra’s descent into the land of the dead in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass - an allusion to Book 11 of the Odyssey.
|James Joyce, by Ohne|
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
The fifth and penultimate volume in my Adventures of Odysseus series has now been released in paperback and e-book formats. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed recreating the Trojan War, using a blend of historical accuracy and Homeric liberties, but not shying away from the mythical elements (after all, Greek mythology without the myth is just Greek!) I’ve tried to make these ancient stories accessible to readers with little or no prior understanding of the subject, and ultimately hope that my small chapter in the long British (or perhaps I should say English-speaking) homage to Homer will encourage a few more people to read his original works.
Glyn Iliffe studied English and Classics at Reading University, where he developed a passion for the stories of ancient Greek mythology. Well-travelled, Glyn has visited nearly forty countries, trekked in the Himalayas, spent six weeks hitchhiking across North America and had his collarbone broken by a bull in Pamplona.
King of Ithaca was Glyn’s first novel, followed by The Gates of Troy, The Armour of Achilles, and The Oracles of Troy. All are available for sale in the UK through Amazon. He is currently working on the fifth book in the series, The Voyage of Odysseus.
For more information about his work, check out Glyn's website, Facebook or follow him on Twitter.