CJ-ONLINE Archives

July 2008


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Reply To:
Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 9 Jul 2008 12:02:33 -0500
text/plain (176 lines)
Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. By PAUL MURGATROYD. London: 
Duckworth Publishing, 2007. Pp. x + 200. Paper, $31.00. ISBN 

Order this text for $20.46 from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:


A CJ Online Exclusive

The title of Murgatroyd抯 (hereafter M.) new book announces the volume抯 
twin aims: it serves both as an introduction to one of the most interesting 
aspects of classical mythology梩hose fearsome monsters that grew out of the 
Greeks and Romans active imaginations梐nd as a primer to classical 
literature itself. Bringing to bear both his considerable literary powers 
and experience drawn from years of teaching introductory classical 
mythology (whence this volume), M. has produced an eminently readable, 
informative book that will be a useful addition to introductory myth 
courses, while being engaging enough for the general reader interested in 
ancient stories and those who told them.

The primary aim of the book is neither to provide a comprehensive catalogue 
of monsters nor to discuss their origins, although the short bibliography 
and notes will point those interested in pursuing answers to such questions 
in the right direction. Nor does M. devote much energy to defining exactly 
what he means by 搈onster. This is hardly surprising, given that any such 
attempt is bound to be open to criticism for being either too narrow or too 
broad. Indeed, as M. informs us, 搕he definition of 憁onster is a tricky 
business, and he notes that attempts to classify them by type often do 
搉ot work too well, because monsters notoriously cross boundaries (p. 1). 
In the end, M. opts for a broadly inclusive definition: 搕he word will 
cover mythical, fabulous and imaginary creatures which are extraordinary, 
alien and abnormal. Thus, all of the usual suspects (e.g. the Chimera, the 
Gorgons, the Harpies, the Sphinx, Cerberus, etc.) make their obligatory 
appearance, but we also meet some lesser known and sometimes more 
frightening monsters, such as the blood-sucking Keres; the seductive 
Empousae, who consume men both sexually and literally; and the Bronze giant 
Talus, who circled the island of Crete three times daily to prevent 
visitors from putting into port, at least until Medea got to him. Those 
looking for a specific monster can usually find it by consulting the index, 
although more than a few names are lacking (e.g. Cranae, goddess of hinges, 
pp. 910; Cercyon and Sciron, p. 72).

M. is not so much interested in the monsters themselves, however, as in how 
classical authors deploy them in the service of their broader literary 
aims. In fact, his primary goal (pp. ix, 23) is to introduce literary 
appreciation and literary criticism gradually to readers who have little 
experience looking closely at literature (read: most undergraduates). This 
is a laudable and ambitious goal, and one that is not easy to pull off. But 
M. has carefully molded his presentation and has chosen perhaps the most 
captivating of topics梞ythical monsters梐s the medium to impart these 
ideas. Although each chapter may be read on its own, M. has worked into the 
book a series of lessons on how to read, appreciate and analyze literature, 
first introducing basic concepts like narrative pace and description, then 
progressing to more sophisticated approaches, such as Propp抯 functions 
(Chapters 10 and 11, 揊ighting with Monsters). He has also built in 
suggested 揳ssignments to practice the concepts introduced in the 
chapters, presumably so that instructors can build them into their 
syllabuses as writing assignments or topics for discussion. For instance, 
at the end of Chapter 2 (揑mpact) M. provides a bare passage from Ovid抯 
Metamorphoses (3.2649, describing the serpent that guarded the grove of 
Ares) so that students can study on their own the techniques Ovid employs 
for impact. Similar exercises are found at the end of all other chapters 
except the first and last (p. 12).

Despite the consistent didactic thread woven into the book, the subject 
matter of the individual chapters is less consistent. Thus, after Chapter 3 
(揕aocoon and the Sea-Snakes), devoted entirely to Vergil抯 account of 
Laocoon抯 demise in Aeneid 2, we find in Chapter 4 a wide-ranging survey of 
the Sirens in literature, from Homer all the way up to Derek Walcott抯 The 
Odyssey (1993). Chapter 5, in turn, is a general survey of 揙ther Winged 
Monsters with less attention to literary accounts. Other chapters are 
wholly devoted to comparisons of ancient accounts: take, for instance, the 
analysis of the different portrayals of Theseus by Bacchylides, Catullus 
and Ovid in Chapter 6, and the discussion of the figure of Polyphemus 
throughout ancient literature (in Homer, Euripides, Vergil, Theocritus and 
Ovid) in the twelfth and final chapter. M. does not privilege the 
traditional canon of ancient authors: alongside Homer, Vergil and Ovid 
stand Manilius, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, Philostratus and Quintus 
Smyrnaeus, among many others.

The book is thus essentially a hodge-podge of literary scenes, but an 
instructive hodge-podge analyzed by a sensitive critic who intimately 
understands his audience and how to get through to them. This ability to 
relate to the untrained reader is doubtless owed, at least in part, to M.抯 
long career teaching classical mythology to undergraduates. M. often speaks 
the students own language, but he never talks down to them or 
underestimates their intelligence. On the contrary, readers must invest a 
great deal of energy to follow his careful analyses. But M.抯 main virtue 
is his ability to communicate with modern readers. For instance, in order 
to drive a point home, M. often draws comparisons to modern cinema, 
building, as it were, a bridge from a medium with which students are deeply 
familiar to one that is unknown but fascinating nonetheless (and acting as 
a guide along the entire journey). After all, as M. claims (p. 102), 
揫c]inema is  just another form of narrative, one that can help the 
uninitiated appreciate the power of other kinds of narrative. Thus, in 
order to explain the abrupt change from a light-hearted story to the sudden 
appearance of screech-owls at Ovid Fasti 6.13168, M. explains, 揫t]his is 
the literary equivalent of the shock we get from the abrupt and unexpected 
appearance of a monster in a film (as in Alien) (p. 10). Later, M. calls 
the sudden turn from the description of the sea-monster to the terrified 
look in Andromeda抯 face at Manilius Astronomica 5.57993 a 揷inematic 
憆eaction shot. Chapter 9 (揓ason and the Argonauts pp. 11930) is 
entirely devoted to analyzing Apollonius epic by comparison with the 1963 
movie Jason and the Argonauts. Such comparisons to modern cinema, far from 
pandering to students, may be valuable avenues to introduce literary 
concepts. [n. 1]

On rare occasions M. misses an opportunity to introduce an important 
literary concept. For example, although he mentions that Dante 揻abricates 
for allegorical purposes an arresting and intriguing Siren (p. 49), 
readers have not yet been introduced to the meaning or purpose of 
allegory梐 strange omission, especially since on the previous page Clement 
of Alexandria抯 description of the Sirens song as 搕he lure of pagan Greek 
wisdom and culture, as well as Hippolytus argument that Odysseus is 搕he 
good Christian sailing through the sea of heresy (enticed by sin, i.e., 
the Sirens), are in fact allegory. M. only calls this 搈etaphor, but this 
is a real opportunity to dig into the Church Fathers common practice of 
interpreting pagan myth allegorically (a common practice throughout 
antiquity generally, in fact). Likewise, just above on the same page, M. 
refers to 搑ationalizing explanations of the Sirens, but does not fully 
explain what this means.

One also wishes that M. had been a bit more willing to discuss the 
differences in the literature of different periods, for example between the 
Classical and the Hellenistic periods. In his comparison of Bacchylides 
and Catullus depictions of Theseus, we are helpfully informed that 揫t]he 
Latin poet抯 depiction of him is more complex and critical. He concentrates 
on the female (Ariadne) rather than the male, and he puts the stress on 
pathos rather than glory, undercutting and souring Theseus triumph over 
the Minotaur (p. 78). The ensuing analysis is good, but one wonders why M. 
is reluctant to introduce a discussion of Hellenistic literature, even a 
general one that notes the differences in tastes that develop after the 
death of Alexander. (This would also be valuable for the discussion of 
Theocritus Idyll 11 regarding the Cyclops Polyphemus in Chapter 12). In 
fact, one of the book抯 faults is that it seems to treat all authors as 
operating in a timeless antiquity, and only occasionally do we learn when 
and in what context they wrote. Thus we are not informed that Hesiod stands 
at the beginning of Greek literature; Quintus Smyrnaeus is only 揳 later 
Greek poet (i.e., later than Vergil); and Catullus is nothing more than 揳 
Latin poet. The book is as poor at contextualizing the ancient authors 
themselves as it is good at introducing students to literary analysis of 
their works.

These minor faults, however, do not diminish M.抯 contribution. This is a 
valuable addition to the books from which one can choose to fill out a 
classical mythology syllabus. Given its nature, it is less suitable for the 
large classroom桰 would have a difficult time using it in my class of 200+ 
students梑ut I can see a myriad of uses for smaller classes where 
discussion of literature is possible. If more students read and studied 
M.抯 book, our lives as instructors might be better for it, and we might be 
able to do more sophisticated things in our classrooms, even if that meant 
adding one more moderately expensive textbook to the semester抯 syllabus.

University of New Hampshire

[n. 1] As I was writing this review, an episode in my introductory 
classical mythology class reminded me of the centrality of cinema in the 
minds of today抯 students梚ndeed, cinema can rightfully be called the 
default medium. When discussing Zeus revelation of future events in Book 
15 of the Iliad, many students objected that 搃t ruined the story, because 
it removed all suspense. When I reminded them that (a) all Greeks would 
have known what was going to transpire, and (b) literature is often more 
about how than what, a sharp student immediately raised her hand and 
mentioned the movie Titanic, in which we all knew the ship was going to 
sink, yet the story was interesting nonetheless.

You may remove yourself from the CJ-Online list-serve by sending an email 
to: [log in to unmask] Leave the subject line blank, and in the first 
line of the message write: UNSUBSCRIBE