Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy

By Benjamin Eldon Stevens ’98 and Brett M. Rogers ’99 
(Oxford University Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Katie Pelletier ’03
Classical Traditions book cover

What does Harry Potter owe to Aeschylus?  Or Game of Thrones draw from Aristotle?  In this first collection (in English) in an exciting new field, 15 essays cover topics such as classical allusions in the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft; the Game of Thrones series and Aristotle; filthy harpies in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series; and more. Ben’s own chapter is on ancient trips to the underworld (especially that in Virgil’s Aeneid) and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, while Brett writes about how J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter novels draws on Aeschylus’s Oresteia for ideas about tyranny.

Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy follows on the success of Ben and Brett’s 2015 book,  Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (featured in Reed Magazine, March 2015), and also some exciting projects they have organized: conferences and lectures from Reed to around the U.S. and Patras, Greece. The studies raise fascinating questions about genre, literary and artistic histories, and the suspension of disbelief required not only of readers of fantasy but also of students of antiquity. Ranging from harpies to hobbits, from Cyclopes to Cthulhu, and all manner of monster and myth in between, this comparative study of classics and fantasy reveals deep similarities between ancient and modern ways of imagining the world.

Brett and Ben met in 1997 when Ben, a senior, and Brett, a junior, co-directed Reed’s first Classics Dorm, a Greek and Latin house organized on the model of Reed’s houses for modern languages. The house occupied the eastern part of the top floor of Old Dorm Block, and the dorm parents greeted their dormies (including some first-years) wearing togas and laurel garlands, the traditional sign of victory in ancient contests. These many years later, Brett and Ben are still collaborating.