[Review] 'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy'

'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy' is the second in a series, the first being 'Classical Traditions in Science Fiction'. It is a collection of essays focusing on how fantasy draws deeply on ancient Greek and Roman mythology and literature.
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Edited by Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, the book contains fifteen essays intended for scholars and readers of fantasy alike. This volume explores many of the most significant examples of the modern genre, including H. P. Lovecraft's dark stories, J. R. R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit', C. S. Lewis's 'Chronicles of Narnia', J. K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' and George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and fire' (aka 'Game of Thrones'), in relation to ancient classical texts such as Aeschylus' Oresteia, Aristotle's Poetics, Virgil's Aeneid and Apuleius' Metamorphoses (aka 'The Golden Ass').

So, the writers of the essays try to find links and similarities between modern fantasy and classical texts. It's a comparatively easy task, because both hark back to universal stories that lie buried deep within us. All writers, ancient and recent, will tell stories that have the same issues at the heart of it: a quest for freedom, a rebellion against repression or the urge to discover unknown lands.

What most of the essays fail to mention is the education the modern fantasy writers have had. We know that Tolkien was a philologist and university professor, but he said his main inspiration for 'The Hobbit' was the Old English epic 'Beowulf'. I agree with Benjamin Eldon Stevens, writer on the essay on Tolkien, that Bilbo's travels into the tunnels and his encounters with Gollum/Sméagol echoes the underworlds of Dante and Virgil. We also know that Rowling studied classics at the University of Exeter, so her classical 'roots' are also not in doubt. But what of George R. R. Martin, who 'only' studied journalism? Did he write his sprawling fantasy series with the classics in mind? Or did he simply write a story that has so many similarities with classical stories that one is easily tempted to deduce that Martin is influenced by them. H.P. Lovecraft never finished high school, but was interested in chemistry and astronomy. His dark writing was fueled by his nightmares, the result of parasomnia or ‘night terrors’.

In the end, 'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy', is certainly a book that you should read, because it gives you a reason to ask yourself a lot of questions. And that's the very best one might expect from a book.

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