Comfort Classics: Madeleine Chawner

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Madeleine Chawner

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

Mythology is my passion. When I want to cheer myself up or escape from the world, I tend to submerge myself in favourite modern mythologies. This means Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy and Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are always guaranteed to bring a smile to my face, no matter what. But, they also lead me back to Greek Mythology and, particularly, The Iliad, which seems to contain so much about life, death, living, and loving. Each time I watch one of these films, they seem to give me new insights into the world of The Iliad, and vice versa. They are all rich worlds, where I can enjoy the Venn Diagram of the overlaps and separations between them.

The two pictures below are a great example of of what I mean. In each case you can see heroic heroes, similar in power and physicality, fighting each other. The only thing separating them is their shields. The framing is very similar. Yet these images were created thousands of years apart.

Fight Over Patroklos, Black-figure wine-drinking bowl in the style of Exekias, c. 530 bc. Oxford University Press Blog.
Captain America fighting Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War (2016).

When did you first come across the Iliad?

I came to The Iliad late in life, and only read it for the first time a few years ago, when I was doing my MA. What is exciting to me is that it contains so much more than just war, the anger of Achilles, a beautiful woman, and some squabbling gods. So much of life is contained therein, in the sub stories, and incidental scenes.    

Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?

I really started to see the potential of the book, when I was studying my MA, and did a piece on Thersites. I was looking at his treatment as a person with physical challenges, as well as class disadvantages, and discussing the extent to which he was, or wasn’t, disadvantaged in that society. Another piece of work concentrated on Helen and her attitudes of guilt, and responsibility for her position, in relation to the Trojans, the Achaeans, her husbands, as well as how she was perceived in the Middle Ages. Each of these examples are covered in relatively few lines in the overall work, and yet can be read closely to give a picture of the situations themselves.

What is it about this work that appeals to you most?

The whole work is something that could be re-read and dissected endlessly, I suspect, which makes it such fertile and exciting ground for investigation. It feeds the imagination and the questioning spirit. And it feeds understandings of other fictional worlds, as well as our own.

And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?

When I am not studying the ancient world, I love to immerse myself in favourite popular culture TV shows and movies that explore different mythological aspects – along with vampires and the Gothic! I love to read book series along this line as well. Some of my recent favourites are The Vampire Diaries and The Originals (on Netflix), the Harry Dresden series of novels by Jim Butcher, the Fitz books by Robin Hogg. Oh, and the brilliance that is WandaVision (Disney+).  

I came to academic study late in life. I did a BA(Hons) Open at the Open University, which concentrated on archaeology, history and classics, as well as credit transfers from my Birkbeck Diploma in Egyptology. I then did an MA in Classical Studies, also at the Open University, completed a few years ago. I am currently hoping to do a PhD, where I can further explore popular cultural receptions of a mythological subject.  

By day, I am Head of Global Payroll Process at BSI (the home of the Kitemark!). It is a challenging job, and I have enjoyed utilising the transferable skills from my academic endeavours to enhance my day-to-day work life. I do hope to retire soon, so I can devote myself to pursuing mythology and popular culture more single-mindedly.   

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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