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Retelling A Classic: An Author’s Perspective December 4, 2009

Posted by Heather J in Reading and Reviewing Retellings.
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Please welcome Terence Hawkins, author of The Rage of Achilles, with his thoughts on retelling a classic story.  You can learn more about this book and the author at www.terencehawkins.net.

The Rage of Achilles is a novelization of the Iliad. If you’re going to retell a classic, this is Everest: the founding document of Western literature, the ur-book.

Why the Iliad? Couple of reasons. First, Homer’s way too dead to sue me. But there were a series of coincidences that led me to the subject as well. I had been reading Christopher Logue’s War Music, which is a verse account of several books if the Iliad employing modern language, at the time I saw Saving Private Ryan for the first time. So I started to wonder what the Iliad might look like if told with cinematic realism.

Retelling a classic is easier than writing a novel from the ground up in one obvious and important respect: you don’t have to invent as much. The characters and plot are there for you. That, however, leads to a significant issue—how much fidelity does the original demand?

In order to tell this story with any degree of realism, I had to deal first with the question of the gods. In the original, they appear not only as motivating forces, but actual combatants on the battlefield. This, clearly, would not do. A solution was supplied in the form of Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Brain, a book that Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion called either a complete crock or the greatest idea of the twentieth century. Jaynes’ hypothesis is that consciousness in its modern form didn’t evolve until language achieved enough complexity to compel the brain hemisphere containing the language center to dominate the other—the right-brain/left-brain split. Until that time people perceived the hemispheres communicating as the voices of the gods, in the same way modern schizophrenics have auditory hallucinations. So in Rage, the characters—with the notable exception of Odysseus, the first modern man—are driven in part by gods whom they experience as voices or visions.

The next question was conformity to characterization and plot. As to the former I thought I had a pretty free hand—while Homer’s warriors aren’t cardboard figures, neither are they distinctly individualized. For that reason I thought it was acceptable to depict them as people we might recognize—by turns cunning, stupid, drunken, brutal, or even occasionally noble. Achilles was naturally the biggest challenge. As the book proceeded I realized that the original essentially concerned his evolution, so he begins as a monster of vanity and ultimately joins the human race.

Finally, in order to make the story work as a realistic account of war, I had to add characters; the Iliad describes kings and princes, but war is fought by infantrymen. Similarly, I had to invent passages that I thought were consistent with what little we know about the nature of Bronze Age warfare.

All that said, writing the book brought me back to a story that is as rich and deeply human as anything ever composed. I don’t think it’s possible to do it full justice, but I hope that at least I did it no harm.

Thank you, Terrence, for sharing your thoughts with us here at the Really Old Classics Challenge.

Now we’d love to hear from our challenge participants.  Is this book on your reading list?  Does the author’s strategy for retelling make sense to you?  Do you find it appealing?  Why or why not?  Is there another way this retelling could be approached?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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1. Why is The Iliad a classic? « Really Old Classics Challenge - November 9, 2010

[…] I wrote about The Rage of Achilles a year ago I was focused—-typically enough—on my own experience of […]

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