Saturday, April 9, 2016

Greek Mythology in British Literature

by Glyn Iliffe
“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
In short, Niobe was the proud mother of fourteen children. She made the mistake of boasting about it to Leto, who only had two. But Leto’s children were the divine Apollo and Artemis, probably the most lethal brother/sister act in mythology. In answer to their mother’s plea for vengeance, they murdered all of Niobe’s offspring. Devastated at their deaths, Niobe wept ceaselessly until she was turned into stone, after which her tears continued to flow in the form of a spring. It’s a tale typical of Greek mythology—mortal encounters immortal and suffers tragic consequences -- and one that I did not learn in full until I studied Classics at university.

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).

But this authority is well-deserved. The stories of Greek mythology draw upon the whole spectrum of human experience. There are few emotions or themes that have not already been powerfully explored in the ancient writings of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles and other Greek playwrights. This is why Freud referred to Oedipus and Electra complexes - because the subconscious desire to sleep with a parent appeared in Greek drama twenty-five centuries earlier. But it is literature that remains most enthralled by the ancient Greeks, a tradition that was revived by the 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]
But what of the popular novel? Sadly, considering the wide appeal of Homer and the storytelling possibilities offered by the Trojan War, there have been very few novels dedicated to the subject. Strangely though, to my way of thinking, there haven’t been nearly as many novels about ancient Greece as there have been about Rome. Authors writing in this era include Lindsay Clarke, Greg Tobin and Valerio Manfredi, David Gemmell’s popular trilogy, and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller in 2012, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction.

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 websiteFacebook or follow him on Twitter.


  1. Thanks for the enjoyable post! I stumbled across Robert Graves' The Greek Myths while I was still in primary school. I didn't know it wasn't for children, so I just read it, including all those notes about the Sacfed King and the Triple Goddess - and was very disappointed in children's editions afterwards!

    References to Greek mythology might well have gone over the heads of the current generation of children except that in the last few years a Mr Rick Riordan has been writing novels about young Demi-gods! As a result, young readers are encouraged to look up the background to their heroes, which is no bad thing! (They might be disappointed to find out that Athena is unlikely to have had children, of course)

  2. As someone who comes of Greek heritage, I've been brought up with these stories. They're ingrained in our psyche but I'm also surprised that there isn't more out there, telling the original stories. Odysseus is my absolute favourite hero!

    1. Odysseus rocks! He is the Greek hero with a brain, unlike so many others. I often think that there's something symbolic about the fact that he's a favourite of Athene.

    2. I don't know about him being a favourite...I feel mostly sorry for his Penelope. Me, I'm a Hector girl. Sort of pointless, given his sad and gory end...

    3. Sue, we can have an Odysseus fan club! Let everyone else take Achilles and Hercules. But of the Greek Gods, Athene is for me too. I loved how Odysseus used his head to get out of a pickle instead of his brawn. Anna, I do think poor Hector was wonderful too which makes his end so infuriating. But going back to Odysseus, my favourite part of the Odyssey was the end when Athena holds back the dawn to give Odysseus and Penelope more time in each other's arms. Ah!

  3. In Canada, we took Greek mythology in school before high school. I always enjoyed it and it spurred me to get more books out of the library to read up on different heros etc.
    Ialways felt so sorry for Prometheus and the other fellow rolling the big rock up the hill forever.

    1. There is so much inspiration in these old stories and this echoes Glyn's point perfectly. They really are brilliant in their insights in the human condition.


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