BMCR 2020.11.23

Fantasy in Greek and Roman literature

, Fantasy in Greek and Roman literature. Routledge monographs in classical studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 222. ISBN 9780367139902. $112.00.


Well-known for his early work on Lucian, Philostratus, and other classical writers in the second Sophist tradition since the publication in 2000 of Fairytale in the Ancient World, Graham Anderson has embarked upon an ever-expanding examination of the fantastic and marvelous in classical Greco-Roman literature, amassing a series of titles on fairytale, folklore, and the Arthurian legend in ancient texts of which Fantasy in Greek and Roman Literature is the most recent. While, like its predecessors, this title fills an important gap in historical studies of the fantastic, it also serves primarily as a summary, or a preview or place-holder, for future work by Anderson himself and/or the next generation of scholars interested in these materials. Anderson has developed and displays in this volume what could be construed as a “signature style” of providing a series of short essays offering a taxonomy of fantasy themes in classical literature that on the whole comprises much discussion and comparatively little analysis. What analysis is present focuses on efforts to explain what authors are doing with fantasy elements; how or why they are achieving their effects; and how audiences might receive these tales. The volume is comprehensive and learned in its presentation of the various themes associated with the fantastic and the range of texts referenced and discussed, but light on the development of a thesis tying the book together, beyond that fantasy is present in ancient texts, and where and in what forms it can be found there. That said, there are a number of individual claims made throughout individual chapters that bear consideration towards a larger and more cohesive study or set of studies. Anderson has opened a door through which future scholars of the fantastic in ancient literature can walk and wander, providing a guide to how and where to begin looking. This should be viewed not necessarily as a negative criticism, but rather as an evaluation of this book’s true value, which is as a generative opening to further and more developed studies and arguments regarding the presence and function of the fantastic in ancient texts.

Anderson begins with an introduction in which he sketches out the nature of fantasy, ultimately rejecting any clear definition in order to embrace rather loosely defined characteristics, allowing for a broad consideration. He contextualizes his discussion of fantastic characteristics with a few illustrative moments from a variety of texts–mostly Roman, as might be expected, with a few Greek examples as well–to show what fantasy looks like in a classical narrative through his particular lens. Following this introduction, the contents of the book are arranged in four parts that correspond to one another mainly in that they all deal with some aspect of the fantastic, but do not comprise a cohesive argument.

Part 1, “Themes of Fantasy,” provides short essays (10-20 pages), each of which surveys one of eight fantasy themes: otherworldly conversations, talking animals and monstrous creatures, fantastic voyages, dreams, apparitions and horror, fantastic aspects of myth, metamorphosis, bizarre banquets, and sexual fantasy emphasizing the phallus. This section,   clearly the product of a lifetime of reading widely throughout the corpus of Greco-Roman literature, essentially offers the reader a library of resources to consult in the examination of these various themes. There are a few moments that render it useful beyond historical studies of the fantastic; for example, in his discussion of otherworldly conversations Anderson notes that in these scenes “the assumption always seems to be that communication is possible, in an eventually intelligible language, and there will be matters of at least common interest to be discussed” (23)–a comment that firmly links this chapter’s contents to the linguistic and communication preoccupations in modern science fiction and fantasy, offering scope for transhistorical and comparative considerations.

Part two, “Divergent Imaginations,” consists of two essays that examine the development of fantasy from verse into prose forms, drawing on Anderson’s substantial work on and knowledge of the imperial prose tradition. He claims in the first of these essays that “prose paraphrase is rooted in the emulation of verse by prose and the emulation of poets by orators. The priority of archaic literature in verse with its didactic ‘authority’ demanded the emulation of poets by any new wisdom in prose” (124). The author goes on to examine the writings of Sophists in support of this point, and in the second essay he treats specifically “adjustments to the Homeric accounts” of the aftermath of the Trojan war in the early 3rd century CE Heroicus of Philostratus.

Part three, “Fantastic Texts,” capitalizes on Anderson’s extensive expertise on Lucian, offering three essays spanning that writer’s works with attention to what they divulge regarding the nature of fantasy in ancient Greek literature; Anderson concludes  that “it has to be beyond reasonable possibility, with at least an element of the absurd or incredible and a tendency to exaggerate but, as so often, still never quite losing sight of the normal and logical as well” (174)–which is a logical if generic conclusion for any successful work of fantasy, and indeed serves as the listed characteristics of fantasy in several other chapters as well.

Finally, in part four, “Consumers of Fantasy,” Anderson offers two essays discussing the readership of fantasy, followed by an appendix focused on fantastic language that, if further developed, could have become a standalone and significant chapter and, again, offers a tantalizing glimpse of what further kinds of work at the linguistic level could be undertaken in the study of these texts as fantasy literature. In the first  essay, he discusses who the audiences might have been for ancient fantasy stories, running through their various purposes as forms of diversion, symposia offerings, entertainment for children, and means of divulging of wisdom and scholarship before concluding that “the tellers and listeners alike may be of any social class or occupation” (187)–again, a point that is relatively general in nature and one that can be made of almost any literary tradition. He ends the volume with a discussion of various modern theorists of the fantastic who might be profitably engaged with in the reading of ancient works of fantasy, and a conclusion that “the man in the Greek or Roman street might be thought of as having little to do with fantasy, yet the more we reflect on it, the more difficult it is to avoid the fantastic in the course of everyday experience” and that “it is clear from the range of introductory examples that we could be confident of finding examples of fantasy in every period of Greek and Latin literature, from Homer through the Late Antiquity, and that not all reactions to it are necessarily favorable” (201). He is speaking here of the reactions to fantasy in the earlier texts by later authors in the ancient world, but this last statement concerning reactions also might be applied to some modern fantasy scholars’ views of looking in ancient texts for fantasy in the sense in which it is understood today. There have been, and continue to be, those who argue that while there are  certainly, and undoubtedly, fantastic elements in ancient tales, “fantasy” as a genre does not exist before the nineteenth century, a thesis Anderson has set out through a significant body of work spanning the first twenty years of this new millennium to disprove. Fantasy in Greek and Roman Literature offers an absorbing, charming, and thought-provoking new chapter in these efforts.