Book Review: An introduction to the ancient world for young adults

This slim volume of eight chapters will be of interest not just to classicists but also to those teaching in, researching and studying media, film, theatre studies and gender studies. The editors, both classicists, currently teach at the University of Akron, Ohio (Burns) and at University of Texas at San Antonio. There is no information on the six contributors.

9781443880213.jpgThe stated aim of the book is to show how studying the ways in which ancient women are depicted ‘in modern media gives us insight not only into the characters themselves but also the universe of meaning they have created’. Indeed, the articles are designed to ‘explore the ways in which representations of classical women continue to allow us to expand our understanding of ourselves and our culture’, though I confess to struggle with the assertion in support of this that ‘every Barbie doll furthers the legacy of Helen of Troy’.

The book is divided into two parts: ‘Mythic Women Revisited’ and ‘Mythic Women Transported’, each of four chapters. Part one critiques mythic women appearing in new versions of old stories—vehicles with which to explore modern values; part two seems to me to do the same as part one while the introductory remarks just add to the confusion regarding its objective.

In part one we start with ‘Sacrificing the Myth in I. Kadare’s Agamemnon’s Daughter’ in which the sacrifice of Iphigenia is the lens through which relationships with leader, lover and country are filtered. ‘Orpheus Loves Inevitability’ explores the tensions the modern author (in this case Marcel Camus) has to endure when trying to reconcile ancient tradition with originality. Particularly interesting is ‘Antigone in German-Occupied Paris: Anouilh’s Antigone’ where the ancient heroine is invested with powerful political protest in Vichy France. Finally, ‘Transmutation of Love in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses’ guides us through the journey each of the featured women make on the road to emotional strength and independence.

Part two is more modern media related. Helen of Troy features in the first chapter and is examined as an adult role in model three young adult novels. The second is an appraisal of the Amazons as depicted in Brian K. Vaughan’s comic book series. This is followed by ‘Mr Artemis’—a thought provoking study of how the names of ancient goddesses ‘add implicit traits to characters across gender boundaries in modern fiction impacting on characters who are not themselves goddesses or even women’ (!). The concluding chapter examines how concepts of heroism and the hero are transformed when the traditional associations between gender and character are reversed.

The book, especially part one, will give a refreshing slant on ancient mythic women, but its title should really include ‘mythic’. It offers an alternative and extra dimension to how ancient mythic women are received, particularly in part two, in modern media such as comic books and young adult literature. For others, it will no doubt be a valuable addition to the literature on the reception of antiquity in modern culture.

Most importantly, though, it provides a window through which young adults can be introduced to the ancient world on terms with which they are comfortable. It matters little how successive generations are introduced to, and seduced by, the classics, be it through Homer or Cicero or through film, theatre, TV, comic books or adult novels—so long as they get there.

Paul Chrystal

This review originally published on Classics for All’s Reading Room, 23.05.2017

For more information on Ancient Women in Modern Media and to purchase a copy, click here.

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