Hello, friend! I’m Ashley Walker and chances are, if we know each other, you’ve probably heard me get really excited about either English or Classics (or both) at some point in time. (There’s an equally likely chance you’ve heard me get excited about chocolate or squirrels or something, but we’ll leave that for another day.) Anyway, if you ever want to nerd out about literature, I’m always happy to join in such an endeavor.
In the recent past, I’ve had two revelations: 1) I really like contemporary literature and 2) there are some really cool contemporary books that adapt or retell the classics in interesting ways. So, I’d like to recommend some of these books that I’ve read recently and let you know a little bit about why I like them!
Before I mention the actual books, the really cool thing that unites each of them is a thing called classical reception. I’m really interested in classical reception studies, but you don’t have to be interested in studying classical reception to enjoy reading it. If you were someone who read and loved the Percy Jackson series (and, based on the kinds of people we get in Kairos, I know you’re out there), then you already know what classical reception is!
Classical reception studies basically looks at how classical literature, art, culture, etc. is received in later time periods. So, when people like Rick Riordan take classical myths and literature and adapt or retell them to fit a new time period or perspective, they’re doing classical reception!
So, classical reception is cool. But why should you, a college student, still care about something going on in The Lightning Thief? Because it’s also going on in some really great contemporary literature. Like I mentioned, I used to think I didn’t like contemporary literature, but in a Contemporary Lit class last spring, I realized that I just didn’t know what contemporary literature I should have been reading. And one of these books that I should have been reading was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (2017).
Home Fire is Shamsie’s retelling of a Greek tragedy, and when reading this book in class, I was really drawn to how Shamsie adapts a classical work within a modern context. (If you want to hear her talk about it, check out this awesome interview: “Adapting Antigone and Googling While Muslim” Shamsie has a really cool metaphor for her use of Antigone; she starts talking about it around 6:00.) If you’ve had Dr. Johnson’s Foundations class, you’ve read the Antigone by Sophocles. Well, Shamsie takes that story and places it within the context of a modern British-Pakistani family. Shamsie’s nuance in adapting the Greek play is impressive, as well as her writing and her political/social commentary. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
After reading that book and realizing that contemporary literature could interact with the classics in cool ways, I spent part of my summer reading several other contemporary books focused around classical reception (partly thanks to a professor—the one who taught the Contemporary Lit class—sending me this article from The Guardian: “Epic Win! Why Women Are Lining Up to Reboot the Classics.”
Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships (2019) was one of the books I read this summer and really enjoyed. Haynes (as The Guardian mentions) studied Classics and her book certainly shows that. She essentially reworks the Iliad in a feminist adaptation focusing on the voices of women whose voices are often ignored in the original poem. One detail I really liked was Haynes’s representation of Calliope, the muse. Haynes portrays Calliope’s relationship with Homer in really interesting ways (the invocation of the muse is fascinating!) and Calliope’s perspective on the women in the story is also really interesting.
Despite how much I loved A Thousand Ships, Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) was my favorite of the books I read this summer, as I thought it was the best-written and the most accurate portrayal of the classics.
Miller has her B.A. and M.A. in Classics and Circe is her second novel focusing on classical reception. (The Song of Achilles was her first, but I haven’t read it yet.) This novel retells the story of Circe, who you might know from the Odyssey. But Miller doesn’t limit Circe to her portrayal in the Odyssey, and I thought that the scope of her novel was especially cool.
One of the things I found most impressive about the novel was the fact that I couldn’t tell whether Miller was creating new myths to fill gaps or whether she just knew myths I didn’t know. She retells the classics that well. (I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses later in the summer and realized Miller really did know her myths.) Miller writes well enough to transition between legitimate myths and the new perspective she brings, and she knows the classics well enough to write convincingly. I was very impressed with her novel and would definitely recommend it.
So, if you’re looking for something new to read, maybe check out some of these books! I think they’re genuinely good books and their interactions with the classics are also really interesting. These three books have shown me some really cool connections between my two disciplines, so I would hope that you could enjoy them from the perspective of your discipline too. I hope, if you read them, that you like them and that you get a glimpse into the interdisciplinary world of classical reception. It’s pretty cool!
-- Ashley Walker
This post was written by a Kairos student and contains their personal opinions. It does not reflect the opinions of the organization of Kairos.