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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.
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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Many ROCs are written using formal or outdated language.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.


Review Round-Up #2 March 4, 2010

Posted by rebeccareid in Reading and Reviewing Classics, Reading and Reviewing Retellings.
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You’ve been busy reading. Here are some of the reviews you submitted to us from your challenge reading!

Ancient History

Jenny Loves to Read discusses The Epic of Gilgamesh, which she says “it was a quick read and it certainly piqued my interest in ancient texts or stories.”

It’s Greek to Me

Heather at Word Trix wrote about Aristotle’s brief Poetics, which she calls “the first book for writers.” She enjoyed it and says “how little the “rules” of writing have changed over the centuries.”

Roman Holiday

Heather J. at Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books discussed her attempts to read Aupelius’ The Golden Ass. She says it was the old translation that made this a “did not finish” for her.

Olde English

Rebecca at Rebecca Reads finished Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I said, “I enjoyed reading Sir Gawain for the language” because it really is beautiful.

Asian Traditions

Rebecca at Rebecca Reads finished The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. I really enjoyed it because she was like a blogger: I say, “I think she was born 1000 years too early, because she loved finding something, be it funny, annoying, or ironic, in the ordinary events of the day.”

Extra Credit

Megan at Working title reviewed The Palace of Illusions, a retelling of some of the events in the Indian classic Mahabharata. She says, “This is an absolutely lovely story, filled with beauty, and utter despair, and everything in between. I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to sample the literature of India, with a modern twist.”

Rebecca at Rebecca Reads read Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston, a retelling of the story of the Hebrew Exodus. Although it had some faults, I’m fascinated by the story of the Exodus so I loved the premise: “tell the story of Moses and the Hebrews basing it on African-American folkloric practices (hoodoo and magic).”

And there you have it! The second round-up of reviews. If you have also reviewed something in the second half of the challenge, let us know and we can add it here. Thanks for reading and reviewing these greats of antiquity!

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

Posted by Heather J in Reading and Reviewing Retellings.

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.