BMCR 2022.06.06

The modern Hercules: images of the hero from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century

, , The modern Hercules: images of the hero from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. Metaforms: studies in the reception of classical antiquity, volume 21. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. xxvi, 672. ISBN 9789004440005. €159,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The Modern Hercules is the latest publication borne from the Leeds Hercules project, a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary collaborative endeavour headed by Prof. Emma Stafford. The primary aim of the project – to chart the significance of the hero Hercules from late antiquity to the modern day – is (if you will excuse the obvious pun) a herculean effort and this volume epitomises that commitment. Over 29 wide-ranging chapters, The Modern Hercules covers both adult and youth literature, the use of the hero in politics, his place in art, imagery, and more recently in film. All of this is achieved whilst covering a 200-year period, between the nineteenth and twenty-first century. To cover every single chapter in detail is beyond the purview of this review, but the division of the book into thematic subsections does allow for a systematic assessment.

Part 1 explores the hero and his place in literature, art and politics. Part 1.1 looks specifically to literature, covering a wide range of European authors, from Isaac Williams to Agatha Christie. This section highlights the multi-faceted nature of Hercules in modern literature. Concluding an insightful analysis of the hero’s presence in the poetry of Cavafy and Ritsos, C. Michalopoulos remarks that: ‘Herakles’ journey in modern Greek poetry is a fascinating and polymorphous one’ (p. 81). It seems this is true for most forms of literature in the past two centuries.

Part 1.2 moves on to examine Hercules in literature ostensibly aimed at children. It starts with another survey chapter looking at a wide array of children’s literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Hodkinson), emphasising the way Hercules is used to reflect social values, and how this theme was adapted as those values changed over such a long stretch of time. The two other chapters look at specific examples from more recent publications: the Percy Jackson series (Foster), and the comic book series The Incredible Hercules/Prince of Power (Koning). The latter of these does bring to the fore the lack of an overarching definition of ‘children’s literature’. Considering the strong adult fanbase for Marvel comics and the quoted instance of adult language usage it is hard to claim that this was created exclusively for children.

Part 1.3 offers an interesting set of case-studies examining the hero’s utilisation in various forms of political discourse. The chapters cover a range of examples, drawing from modern Greek politics, including A. Michalopoulos’ fascinating look at the reception of Herakles in the Greek press, the place of the hero in local folklore of A Caruña (Seijo-Richart), and the hero’s presence in two very different art exhibitions (James; Stafford). Each chapter gives an interesting snapshot of the hero’s reception, but they also raise some important points of contention.  One example comes from James’ chapter, which looks at the exhibition in Moscow, 2014, to celebrate the birthday of Vladimir Putin. The paintings presented Putin in various Herculean scenes, but we do not actually know what he thought of them. James points out that some media outlets thought that this was a joke at Putin’s expense, but also that it may not have been. The analysis put forward is really interesting, but without a firm answer to this question of intent it is hard to see which reading is the more appropriate.

Part 2 moves from traditional media onto more modern fare, namely cinematic and televisual receptions. Part 2.1 examines three very different modes of reception; from the subtle, indirect influence in The Small Back Room (1946) (Harrop), to the fan magazines that were released alongside films during the early 20th century (Williams). The final chapter examines the Australian film Hercules Returns as one part of a wider process of Herculean reception in Australian culture. What Dillon offers is an excellent example of the needed focus of reception studies. Films, literature, and political rhetoric rarely exist in isolation from wider cultural influences – yet we so often focus on them in isolation. By looking at Hercules Returns through an Australian cultural lens we can see just how deep these forms of acculturalisation can manifest themselves. We stop looking at the ancient Herakles and how he is misused, and look instead at a new chapter where Hercules is as much an Australian hero as he is ancient Greek.

Part 2.2 moves once again into media for younger audiences, including the 1960’s cartoon series The Mighty Hercules (Allan), the French animated film Lez Douze travaux d’Astérix (Almagor), as well as Hercules on screen during the 1990’s with the Disney movie (Maurice; Summers) and Kevin Sorbo’s portrayal of the hero in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Solomon). Each chapter neatly highlights the way Hercules has been used within varying historical and social contexts, often to reinforce contemporary social ideals of masculinity, family, and success. There are certainly gaps here for further exploration. For instance, it is a shame that the analysis of Disney’s Hercules is restricted to the cinema release and there is no discussion of the TV series, which continued to adapt Greek myths in a variety of ways which may not necessarily conform to the analysis on offer here.

Part 2.3 explores Hercules’ portrayal in the new millennium, including a fascinating examination of his reception in Japanese manga and anime in particular (Peer). Alvares and Salzman-Mitchell’s chapter offers a contrast between the social concerns of the 20th and 21st centuries manifest in various representations of Hercules. Most of their case studies have been covered before or after this chapter in greater detail, but the inclusion of the lesser known TV series Hercules (2005), by Hallmark Entertainment, makes for an interesting analysis of modern Christian ideals represented through the hero. The final chapter of this section discusses the hero in video games (Beaumont). In so doing, Beaumont offers a new approach to understanding the reception of Hercules across a range of media, spanning in effect three millennia. This model of mythodiegesis creates a system that embraces the intertextual nature of Hercules’ reception whilst simultaneously acknowledging that the elements can often be narratively independent of one another. The draw of Hercules as a character is so strong that no two adaptations of his story need to maintain any consistency: ‘hence the divergent depictions of Hercules’ (p. 569).

Part 2.4 brings the book to a close by examining a singular case study in the graphic novel and subsequent film adaptation of Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars series. Two chapters cover the common ground when considering these stories, notably the rationalisation of myth (Gordon) and both the physicality and star appeal of Dwayne Johnson as the modern Hercules on screen (Cyrino). Chapters by Hsu and Gellar-Goad examine the graphic novels thematically, giving an important insight into the violence and ‘savagery’ as well as the presentation of gender, race and ethnicity. Considering these important thematic elements, an interesting avenue to explore next would be how these themes were adapted from the page to the screen, most notably the theme of race, as the modern Hercules, Dwayne Johnson, identifies as Black/Samoan.

As an edited volume, this book offers an amazing breadth of work covering a wide selection of media and varying portrayals of Hercules. The few chapters that move beyond the European and American cultural landscapes are particularly welcome. Some of these chapters offer something not only incisive but also innovative in either approach or analysis. The lack of conclusions for each section, or indeed the book as a whole, is unfortunate as it misses an opportunity to draw these chapters together and explore key themes in tandem. That minor quibble aside, this volume offers incisive commentary, showcasing lesser-known case studies and parallels, and most importantly of all it exposes areas in need of further study and exploration.

Authors and titles

Introduction – Hercules, the Modern Man: an Introduction (Alastair J.L. Blanshard and Emma Stafford)
1. Hercules among the Germans: from Winckelmann to Hölderlin (Will D. Desmond)
2. Hercules among the Tractarians: Typological Reading in Isaac Williams’ The Christian Scholar (Clemence Schultze)
3. ‘And maybe in your case there wouldn’t be a Herakles…’: Herakles in C.P. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos (Charilaos N. Michalopoulos)
4. The Mirror of Greek Myth: James McAuley’s ‘The Hero and the Hydra’ (Rachael White)
5. The Egg-headed Hero: Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules (Hugo Koning)
6. Hercules as Romantic Hero in Twenty-first-century Historical Fiction (Eleanor Regina OKell)
7. Hercules in Children’s Literature: a ‘warts and all’ Model of Masculinity? (Owen Hodkinson)
8. Demigod, God or Monster? Rick Riordan’s Hercules (Frances Foster)
9. The Incredible Hercules: Prince of Power (Hugo Koning)
10. Whose Hero? Hercules and His Avatars in Political Discourse (Paula James)
11. Reimagining Herakles: a Supporter of the Greek Revolution and a Defender of the Greek Crown (Maria G. Xanthou and Kleoniki Kyrkopoulou)
12. Ο Ηρακλής πήρε το ρόπαλό του (‘Herakles took up his club’): the Reception of Herakles in the Modern Greek Press (Andreas N. Michalopoulos)
13. A Coruña, Cidade Herculina: Hercules as Founder of Cities (María Seijo-Richart)
14. Exhibiting Maguire’s Herakles: a Dialogue between Old and New Worlds (Emma Stafford)
15. Herakles on Chesil Bank: The Archers, Disavowable Classics, and The Small Back Room (Stephe Harrop)
16. ‘The Muscles of Hercules Beneath the Skin of Antinous’: Mapping Herculean Stardom in Film Fan-Magazine Discourse (Michael Williams)
17. Hercules ‘Down-Under’: Antipodean Experiences of the Hero’s Machismo (Matthew P.J. Dillon)
18. The Mighty Hercules Cartoon Series in Conversation with Steve Reeve’s Hercules and Some Societal Concerns of the Early 1960s (Arlene Allan)
19. Asterix as the New Hercules: The Twelve Tasks of Asterix (1976) (Eran Almagor)
20. Disney’s Hercules in Context: Mouse-morality for Mini-heroes (Lisa Maurice)
21. A Real American Hero: the Superhero-fication of Disney’s Hercules (Sam Summers)
22. The Transnational Convergence of Family Values, Computer-Generated Monsters, and Cleavage in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Jon Solomon)
23. The Labours of Hercules-Sama (Ayelet Peer)
24. Hercules’ Self-fashioning on Screen: Millennial Concerns and Political Dimensions (Jean Alvares and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell)
25. ‘Through a Glass, Partly’ Reflections of Hercules in Video Games: the Mythodiegesis of Depictions of Hercules in Video Games, and Their Groundings in Medium and Textual Requirements and Contexts (Alix Beaumont)
26. ‘I Am Hercules’ in 2014: Rebooting and Rationalizing a Modern Hero (Joel Gordon)
27. Warriors, Murderers, Savages: Violence in Steve Moore’s Hercules: The Thracian Wars (Katherine Lu Hsu)
28. Sex and Gender, Race and Orientalism in Steve Moore’s Hercules Comics (T. H. M. Gellar-Goad)
29. How the Rock became Rockules: Dwayne Johnson’s Star Text in Hercules (2014) (Monica S. Cyrino)