At the end of last week, I had the pleasure of attending Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Conflict in World Fiction since 1989 at the British Academy, ably organised by Edith Hall and Katie Billotte. The aim of the conference was to examine the use of myth in modern fiction since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War; to examine what ways authors have used to engage with Greek myth; to see if we could identify what in particular about Greek myth helps people think through conflict; and to ask how Greek myth operates in the post-colonial world, where the classics were once the curriculum of imperialism.
We enjoyed a packed schedule of papers spread over two days covering a gleefully broad geographical range – I now know more about New Zealand Maori fiction, German Holocaust fiction, contemporary Japanese fiction, the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arabian political fiction and Iranian short stories than I had any chance of discovering by myself. The glory of it is that authors from such a wide arena are choosing to use the Greek myths to explore contemporary issues of conflict, and that classicists can speak to their appropriations in interesting ways. Each paper offered powerful observations on the use of myth in cultures with which I am unfamiliar. Running through the papers was a concern with the intentionality of the author and the deliberateness of allusion (and, indeed, how much this mattered); the tensions of appropriation and repurposing of myth; and the way in which myth seemed to be a way of thinking through things as an interpretative framework rather than a source of plot.
Thursday evening also had a full program – although I’m afraid my stamina gave out before the performance by Live Canon (whose praises were sung the following morning), I very much enjoyed the conversation-based panel with Tom Holland, Ardashir Vakil and Aleksandar Gatalica, all of whom offered fascinating insights into their engagement with antiquity in their writing and how they had become interested in the ancient world in the first place. It was a great idea to have a practitioner-based session at a conference like this – something that the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World at Birmingham later this year will also be doing.
Speaking personally, I had decided to attend this conference in the spirit of learning something new and also thinking about ways to approach literary reception in conference papers (in preparation for the Fantastika conference, to which I’m planning to submit an abstract on reception in fantasy novels); I came away with a lot of ideas about approaches to take and avenues to explore. However, I also unexpectedly found myself thinking more about monsters. What really struck me was how the texts that the conference papers discussed had all made a conscious decision to extirpate the mythical monsters. Authors used the story of Oedipus to structure their texts, but not the Sphinx; the Odyssey kept on surfacing again and again, but the monsters of the adventure books hardly surfaced. As some people noted when I raised this in the wrap-up session, to some extent this is a limitation of the realist form, and there are novels that we did not hear about that deal with monsters much more explicitly. But I still think it’s worth noting that the monsters of classical myth have been deliberately jettisoned. I wonder whether this reflects something about the way myth is being used in this form of writing. Monsters tend to be representations of our fears and anxieties. If myth is being used as a framework for exploring fears and anxieties, does that mean we can get rid of the actual embodiments of those fear and anxieties?
I’m far from reaching a conclusion on this, but the conference gave me plenty of food for thought, and I hope everyone who attended came out similarly enriched.