Achilles Has Some Issues He'd Like To Talk About

The myths go modern in 'Songs on Bronze'

Nigel Spivey
Songs on Bronze
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Not everyone will look at a sentence such as "'Twere long to tell all that hindered those heroes," and turn the page for more. The latest bid to make Greek mythology familiar to common readers comes from Nigel Spivey, a Cambridge classics professor. Songs on Bronze isn't a translation of ancient texts but a retelling of their stories, couched in modern English, as opposed to the stodgy, faux-epic prose that clogs most renderings. Instead of burdening you with analysis or history, Spivey presents the myths as straight modern stories, complete with insights into the characters, those lusty gods, mad warriors, and swan-ravished women.

Retelling Greek myths in a modern voice is an exciting idea. Sadly, it's only an idea. Spivey mixes the tense form of the popular novel ("The girl moaned. It was a sound full of significance for those who heard") with hard-body modern poetry ("Eros: zero's opposite") to create a stylistic chimera that belches forth fiery lines like "Big strivers they were, roaming widely, full of ambition and grandiose dreams." At times Spivey creates a rapid flow reminiscent of Clash of the Titans, trashy but enjoyable. But more often, Songs on Bronze wades in the kinds of platitudes found on Foundation for a Better Life billboards ("And yet boldness can be contagious") made duller by the lack of setting and physical detail.

Spivey has a special ear for stilted dialogue, making the Persian prince Sarpedon sound like Yoda: "If Sarpedon fight good and win, at home welcomed as hero." Caught between styles, Spivey manages neither grandeur nor poetry nor excitement.

Greek heroes steal cows, couple bunny-style with women, boys, and animals, cite high ideals while betraying and mutilating each other, and pray to gods as fallible as themselves. If this behavior is not familiar to you, don't worry; Spivey explains his heroes through interior monologues. Unfortunately, these little chats provide scant insight into the myths. Here's Heracles mumbling to himself: "He was not a shirker; shirking was not his style. When hurt, he endured." Spivey claims Heracles' adventures leave him "more flexible, more questioning, more open to doubt," but where's the evidence? Despite the Dale Carnegie soundtrack, it's hard to buy Heracles, the essential strong man, as a modern self-doubter: He just clubs everything that bothers him.

Spivey flattens all the characters in the same way. Stripped of the divinity and depravity that make them worthy of myth, Spivey's heroes resemble all-purpose cartoon good guys, less engaging and less real than your neighbors. Worse, Spivey's interpretation reflects a narrow moral imagination. Considering Achilles' violence and vanity, the author can only come to the conclusion that the warrior is a gay sociopath.

Songs on Bronze is subtitled "The Greek myths made real," but Spivey plays both the myths and the modern idiom false. He tells the old stories, but without their mystic authority or raucous variety. From our time Spivey takes the least real features: pitched but empty prose, shallow pop psychology, relentlessly bland morality. Yet he glosses over the chaotic chorus of truths that assault, bewilder, and seduce us--the kind of tangled world that classical myth can mirror quite well. Spivey's Eros is a good example. He wants to use Eros (the "force that rocks us at the knees") as a central power, but his Eros remains stuck between the action of ancient desire and the language of modern love, without feeling the force of either.

Ultimately, Spivey's failure to make Greek myths "real" isn't entirely his fault. Greek myths enjoyed a long run in literature after everyone had stopped believing in their gods and heroes, but they are at last passing into darkness. Not only Greek myths, but all myths and folklore are dying now in the popular mind (with the exception of the Bible, which tends to be read not as story but as moral proscription). Instead we recite urban legends and celebrity gossip. The alligator in the sewer is our Hydra, Donald Rumsfeld our Ares, Angelina Jolie our Aphrodite. More accurately, Angelina Jolie is our Angelina Jolie; Aphrodite has slipped back into the waves from which she came.

 
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