Classically Inclined

July 5, 2013

Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:09 am
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Oh, where to begin with this one. Let’s start with some basic data. This conference was organised by the Science Fiction Foundation; it also has a conference blog which will keep updating with topics of interest. The programme and abstracts are available online. The conference was well live-tweeted, and a Storify of the relevant tweeting is available . The conference’s aim was to bring together various folks interested in the cross-over between science fiction, fantasy and classical reception, and essentially to give things a good shake and see what happened. Which is all a very prosaic way of saying that it was bloody brilliant. I had an excellent time, met some lovely people, and came away feeling all energised and cheered up. I know that a number of other people went away with brains fizzing and popping with ideas for future research; I’m afraid my brain is so settled on my summer plans that there’s not much space for anything new (and, incidentally, how come it’s July?), but I still got the benefit of the academic adrenaline buzz. Even if I did occasionally forget which day of the week it was.

Now, any conference write-up has to be selective, especially one trying to deal with a conference that has over eighty papers, so let me say up front that I didn’t hear a single duff paper. I heard one or two that could have done with a little more preparatory work, but every paper had an interesting idea that it tried to get across, and that itself is worth celebrating. So, if I don’t mention your particular paper and you know I was in the audience… sorry. I’m sure Tony Keen will have picked up what I said at the time on the Storify. Because I was pretty heavy on the livetweeting, and all my Twitter followers are either interested in the sci-fi/fantasy/classics cross-over or very, very patient people. What I’m going to try and do instead of summarise every single paper is sum up some of my take-homes from the conference and things that jumped out at me. Beyond, of course, the fact that I now have a very long list of things to add to my already very long reading list.

I want to start the impact of the conference on my research, as I gave the first paper of the parallel panels on Saturday. The panel hung together with a remarkable coherence considering that we had all submitted our papers individually, and I’m fairly sure that at least one person will be picking up Lud-in-the-Mist to take on holiday with them as a result. There were some really strong resonances about walls and borders and Roman Britain as a creative space and identity and all that good stuff. I couldn’t have been happier with the company I kept, and with the intelligent and helpful questions from the audience. So many thanks to Sandeep Parmar, Cara Sheldrake and Stephe Harrop, and Penny Goodman for chairing the panel.

The thing I’m most grateful for is the fact that the paper was well received. I’ll be honest – I’d been wondering if it was a little dilettante, a little light, a little descriptive instead of analytical. But it actually went down very well, which reassures me that I’m on to something with this fantastical geographies inspired by classics lark. Thanks to Tony, there was a bit of framing theory that went in at the last minute to help me say what I wanted to say more eloquently and sensibly, and I think that’s going to help the project move forward at the glacial speed that’s possible at the moment. So a little bit of intellectual reassurance that you’re not barking up a totally daft tree is always helpful.

Some of the papers I attended beyond my panel were also helpful for pointing me at different sources for classical monsters. In particular, Otta Wenskus’ “If Humans were Centaurs: Galen on the Limits of Genetic Engineering” alerted me to a very odd passage of Galen refuting the possibility of centaurs ever existing, which was fascinating in its own right, but also for the way that part of Galen’s refutation hinges on situating them in a recognizably human landscape. Otta pointed out this represents a failure to conceive of a non-anthropoid universe, but I think that in and of itself is quite revealing about how classical monsters are thought to occupy space.

I pick out that one paper; I’m finding it hard to quite put my finger on the overall debt this particular strand of my research has to the conference, but I know it’s there. I think that’s because most of the constructive material came from the conversations and random discussions that took place over the three days. The attendees were a mix of graduate students, early and mid-career academics, and independent scholars; although the classicists had greatest critical mass, there was a good smattering of English literature and cultural studies people around as well. There were people there from the UK, the US and various shades of Europe, which led to some interesting conversations about the attitudes to reception in different academic cultures. The atmosphere was friendly, supportive and cooperative, not to mention quietly excited at getting to spend a conference talking about all this interesting stuff. The congeniality of the event made it easier to bat ideas about and come up with interesting possibilities, and I’m sure others found that as well.

Two more academic points that struck me. The first is about methodology. Oh, heavens, was there a lot of methodology on show here, and some of it very new and constructive and exciting. Nick Lowe’s plenary on Sunday, written and rewritten as he listened to what was actually going on and sought to capture it, offered various new models for how to think about reception theory, how it works and what we actually do as classical reception people. Stephen Trzaskoma’s “The First Alternate History Novel: Chariton’s Callirhoe and History that Never Happened” offered a great consideration of how we actually conceptualise and consider the texts that are in front of us and what labels we choose to use to identify what they’re doing; Brett Rogers’ “Orestes & the Half-Blood Prince: ‘Ghosts’ of Aeschylus in the Harry Potter Series” thought about how we deal with classical reception when we can’t quite prove it’s happening but we’re jolly sure it’s there. I’m picking things that stood out for me here, but the conference will have done a great deal of good if it helps us as a field to articulate a clearer and more helpful theoretical framework than we currently have in operation.

The second academic point is about one of the master narratives of historical novels set in Greece that Nick identified and labelled Gravesianism. Two papers also spoke to this – Meret Fehlmann’s “Between Re-narration and Vision – Images of Classical Mythology in the Novels of Robert Graves and Elizabeth Hand” and Elke Steinmeyer’s “The Reception of the Figure of Cassandra in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Novel The Firebrand (1987)”. This conceptual nexus arises from the influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and The Greek Myths, in particular his advocacy for an early matriarchal society that was crushed by the rise of an urban patriarchy as Greek history unfolded. I had not realised how influential this take on both myth and history had been in the sci-fi and fantasy community – a number of novels seem to have used it as a template for their plots, and it has stuck as one of the ways that you ‘do’ ancient Greece in fiction. I’m still mulling over this, and I’m not quite sure where it will take me, but I suspect the short answer is ‘more reading’.

I have missed out hundreds of interesting things; if you want something more thorough, Liz Bourke is doing a comprehensive write-up of her experience as a thank you to the people who helped fund her attendance to speak. For now, I think I’m going to let the refreshment of a truly enjoyable and stimulating three days carry me forward into more book manuscript edits – but I suspect the seeds this conference has sown are going to be putting up shoots for some considerable time to come.


  1. […] Finally, I have come away with lots fascinating ideas but I only went to a fraction of the papers and know that I will not be able to express all of it coherently so I will also encourage you to read other accounts including: Liz Bourke and Liz Gloyn […]

    Pingback by SFF & Classics (Intro) | Writings of a Cornish Classicist — July 9, 2013 @ 12:30 am | Reply

  2. […] being in another stream, Liz Bourke has an epic thirteen-part write-up of the conference. Liz Gloyn has also written up the conference, whilst Cara Sheldrake has written a brief response, which hopefully will be the first in a series. […]

    Pingback by Rounding off the conference | Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space — July 19, 2013 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  3. For the question of monsters in the ancient world, including their relation to real world geography and paleonthology, I suppose you’ve investigated Adrienne Mayors’ book “The First Fossil Hunters” and her articles on the topic ?

    Pascal Lemaire

    Comment by Eumène de Cardie — July 20, 2013 @ 12:24 am | Reply

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