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My experience with Really Old Classics September 8, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Reading and Reviewing Classics, Reading and Reviewing Retellings.

Hi ROC participants! It’s your challenge co-host Heather J, here to share with you some of my experiences with Really Old Classics.  My hope is that what I’ve learned may help you choose books and formats that are right for you.  Do chime in and let me know if I’m successful! (Links included below take you to my reviews on my blog.)

The Language

Many ROCs are written using formal or outdated language.  This can make them seem very intimidating to the modern reader.  If there’s a book that intrigues you, give it a shot!  Usually the story will suck you in once you get used to the language (most ROCs are really quite exciting).  If you’re new to ROCs you may want to try something short, like the play MEDEA, by Euripides.  The story should keep your attention and you’ll likely be able to handle the antiquated language for the short duration of the play.  That said, if you are really struggling with a book feel free to put it aside and find something that works better for you.  I did that with THE GOLDEN ASS, by Apuleius, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision.

The Format

The way in which you experience a book can have a great impact on your enjoyment of that book.  Some stories were originally meant to be read while others were originally meant to be told by a storyteller.  Epics like THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY are excellent to experience via audiobook; when I listened to them I felt like I was sitting by a fire hearing these epics told by a master storyteller.  These two are perhaps my favorite ROCs and I think that is due in great part to the way I experienced them.  However, not all ROCs lend themselves to audio format; I don’t think the Viking epic VOLSUNGASAGA would have worked any better for me if I had listened to it instead of reading it.  Some things just aren’t a good fit!

The Translation

All translations are not equal.  To ensure a good ROC experience you may want to sample a few different translations of the same book and see which one works best for you.  Do you want an ancient epic poem to read like a poem or like a story?  Are you more concerned with the original intention of the author or with the original wording?   Former challenge host Rebecca wrote an excellent post about this a while back; if you are interested at all in the various ways a book can be translated, check out the excerpts she provides from four different translations of THE ILIAD.


In addition to your local bookstore and library there are two websites I’d recommend for finding ROCs.  Project Gutenberg is a great resource and I’ve found that the versions on that site often include footnotes or additional info that is helpful to me as I read; my experience with MEDEA was greatly enhanced by what I learned in the footnotes.  The Online Medieval and Classical Library is another helpful place to find ROCs (that’s where I read VOLSUNGASAGA).

Modern Retellings

There are innumerable modern books that retell stories from ROCs.  Some, like GATES OF FIRE and TIDES OF WAR (both by Stephen Pressfield), retell the battle histories written by Herodotus and others.  Others retell ROCs from an different character’s perspective.  Two examples of this that I have experience with are LAVINA, by Ursula K. LeGuin and Til We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis.  For me, a retelling is more enjoyable if I am already familiar with the original work. That isn’t true for everyone though, and most retellings stand on their own very well.



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