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
3 thoughts on “Lessons from a Spartan Ostrich”
I’m so pleased that you came up with this post because not only did it give me a laugh to get me out of my Monday blues, it also doesn’t attempt to belittle this programme like many others have sought to do.
Now we are only one week in and although the show didn’t conform to my personal expectations, I nevertheless found it an enjoyable watch. It was fun, it played to its strengths and in my opinion wasn’t too serious! Of course there are some out there that dismiss it for one reason or another, that’s their opinion and right, but I say let’s give it a go.
Although I would be thrilled to see a disheveled ostrich leap out of that wooden chest and be the sole cause for the downfall of Troy, I suspect we the outcome will be significantly different, but we can but hope!
I also have to say, that this programme could not have come at a more opportune time for those of us who are tackling issues of reception at the moment!
Good point. It’s a bit like arguing which is the “correct” version of Batman, what we usually mean is the one we grew up with and are used to.
Just like at Troy, I can imagine impassioned future archaeologists searching for evidence of Gotham city’s existence among the remnants of late 20th century America, and I’m sure they’ll find it!
The Batman analogy is a good one, I think – although the Homeric purists might not agree! It’s difficult not to privilege earlier versions if you’re a fan, and the same is true (to a far greater extent, perhaps) of myth today.
Tony, I do tend to be pretty critical of programmes like documentaries, which set out to educate: my family won’t let me watch them, because of all the shouting. But a version of a great myth, produced for Saturday night entertainment? That’s something to enjoy – and I enjoy the awful bits just as much as the good bits! Did I mention the ostrich…?!