When we talk about Greek and Roman myth, we talk a lot about flexibility. Personalities and motivations are altered across versions of a myth: Phaedra changes from temptress to victim in Euripides’ drastic Hippolytus re-write, then by the time of Ovid she’s a temptress again. New settings, back-stories and characters are invented in spin-offs like Virgil’s Aeneid, taking an old myth in a new direction. All of this is permissible within the framework of myth: the old versions continue to be loved and valued while the new twists are enjoyed for their ingenuity.
Which brings me to the BBC’s new series Troy: Fall of a City. Over the weekend I’ve been following the online response to the first episode, as reviews, comments and tweets combine to map the limits of our flexibility. What changes do we tolerate in a beloved myth, and what do we deplore?
Creator David Farr sees the story of the Trojan War as part of a continually developing myth, stating, ‘We have also invented bits, and I’m entirely comfortable with that – these are living stories and every retelling adds another layer to the myth’. This attitude, one shared by many writers of the ancient world, gives Farr license to adapt and create; his Helen is an ‘empowered, feminist icon’, his Paris is a misfit and social climber, his focus is a ‘story of marital infidelity’. However, the devil is in the details.
The public reaction suggests an obsession with accuracy, itself a problematic concept in relation to myth. In an adaptation which firmly grounds itself in fantasy by the early appearance of the gods in a gloomy woodland glade, it could be argued that a focus on ‘historical’ details is futile. Is the anachronistic use of stirrups really more difficult for us to accept than Paris judging a goddess competition? Perhaps it is: I had the same response of obscure outrage when Helen told Paris the story of Actaeon, who was punished for ‘spying on the goddess Diana’…! Anachronisms suggest a lack of attention to detail, and in relation to a big-budget production like this, viewers feel almost obliged to criticise sloppy work.
We don’t like jarring anachronisms, even in myth: that’s pretty clear. So what do we tolerate?
Well, it seems we’re all quite happy with a rogue ostrich roaming the corridors of the Spartan palace. In fact, I’m thinking about changing my definition of a hero to ‘One who does not flinch upon finding an unexpected ostrich right behind him’. The non-Homeric ostrich has met with a positive reception across the length and breadth of the internet. The lesson, I think, is that we will tolerate even the most bizarre and unlikely additions to our beloved myths, as long as we find them appealing.
So bring on the ostriches, BBC! I’m hoping that Episode 2 will reveal that the box on board Paris’ ship contains not Helen, but the Ostrich of Sparta, and that the Greeks will go to war over it. If I’m really lucky, the series will end with Aeneas carrying the ostrich out of the burning city on his back, displaying a hitherto unknown form of pietas.
Let’s have more flexibility in our myth: then we can stop worrying about anachronisms and start enjoying the fantasy again!
Cora Beth Knowles