Songs on Bronze

An interesting review from the Dallas Morning News. It’s not often a book on Greek mythology gets such high-profile coverage. I’ve ordered the book and will report back once I’ve read it!

‘Songs on Bronze’ brings life to legends

Author’s fresh take on Greek tales brings forth their enduring power
07:25 PM CDT on Saturday, July 2, 2005

By DAVID WALTON / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Songs on Bronze, Nigel Spivey’s plain retelling of the classics of Greek literature, is exactly what its subtitle promises: the Greek myths made real. There is no single book or collection of Greek mythology as there is the Koran and the Judeo-Christian Bible.

The Greek tales have been told and retold in countless works of Western literature over the centuries. But these are stories many people don’t know nowadays, and the first thing that ought to be said about Dr. Spivey’s book is that it is an excellent choice for readers who want to brush up on classical mythology. These “Songs on Bronze,” forged by the god Hephaistos onto the shield of Achilles, are the foundation stones for Western literature, language, codes of war and daily conduct in ways that have become largely invisible in modern life.

Dr. Spivey, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has effectively compressed the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, Herakles, Jason and his Argonauts, the war against Troy, Odysseus’ travels, and the tragedies of Oedipus and the House of Atreus, into contemporary language and storytelling style. From creation, through the age of heroes, to the final tragic resolution of the gods’ relations with men, these stories unfold realistically and dramatically as the world’s first, most enduring novel.

In his preface, Dr. Spivey says that he set out to write these stories for his young children, “with due regard to their delicate sensibilities.”

However, he says, his children grew more quickly than he wrote, so he “accepted” the violence and sensuality of the myths. In doing so, he has conveyed something of the grasping, fearsome world from which they came.

Dr. Spivey’s style is simple, engaging, contemporary. His description of Jason sowing a field with dragon’s teeth sounds very much like a paragraph out of Stephen King:
“It was someone in the crowd who spotted the first sprout – a shiny crested thing, soon recognizable as a helmet. Similar pointy objects began to proliferate all over the sown field. Then heads appeared – angry, bristling heads, twisting this way and that, as if impatient to begin a fight.”

Retellings are an old form of literature, and many have achieved honorable standing: Chaucer, Charles and Mary Lamb, Bullfinch. Dr. Spivey doesn’t impose his personal stamp on these stories or unite them with any overarching theme or vision. His style is positively Chekhovian in its directness, economy and transparency of authorship.

The power is in the stories themselves, underscored by periodic reminders that these stories, these names and deeds, will sound down through posterity. Engaging and gracefully written, often surprising and fresh when retold in a contemporary realistic style, these stories express a vision of a world strangely alien from, and at the same time strangely close, to our own.

Author and reviewer David Walton lives and teaches in Pittsburgh.

Rick Riordan