Alan Shepard and Stephen D. Powell, eds. Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
Of the fifteen essays contained in this volume, thirteen were originally presented as papers at "The Fall of Troy in the Renaissance Imagination;' a two-day conference held at the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies at the University of Toronto in 2002. The relationship between the backward-looking Renaissance in the conference title with the forward-looking early modern in the book title underscores an important theme that runs through both: the evolution of a period's view of itself and its relationship to the past, a view embedded in its peoples' social imaginaries. Just as early modern looks back to sixteenth-century Europeans as our glorious ancestors (an attitude whose scholarly significance Stephen Guy-Bray elaborates in his essay), so in this volume many Renaissance: writers predictably imply that they are superior to their immediate progenitors, that they resemble instead a more impressive, ancient people.
The essays in Fantasies of Troy also complicate this received wisdom in persuasive and satisfying ways. For example, several of the essays show how societies use the Troy myth not merely to look backwards but to look sideways to their contemporary neighbours. Because we are like the Trojans, we are not like Rome, say the Venetian writers in Sheila Das's essay. Because we are descended from the Trojans, French is descended from Greek, not Roman, say the linguists in Paul Cohen essay. We feel related to both the Trojans and to our native Gaelic tradition, say the Irish writers and scribes in Brent Miles's. Because we are like the Trojans, we shall create a society based on virtuous love, says Spenser in James Carscallen's essay, while Elizabeth Bellamy and Rebecca Helfer each argue that Spenser's use of Troy actually undercuts such patriotic fervor. In Scott Schofield's essay, Anthony Munday relies on the persistence of England's Trojan founder myth in the public mind to celebrate James I in an age when contemporary historians have already rejected the myth as fictitious.
The editors' use of the title Fantasies of Troy in place of the conference's Fall of Troy underscores the self-aggrandizing impulse implicit in many early modern uses of the Troy myth. Das's Venetian chroniclers and Cohen's French linguists do not envision a defeated people when they posit a Trojan ancestry; at minimum, they envision survivors, handing down their noble legacy to a people who can sustain and cherish it. Michael Ullyot's essay cites numerous early modern English writers who associate London (Troynovant) with "'Toy's glory before its fall, necessarily omitting the myth's more cautionary elements," and Stephen Guy-Bray finds in scholarship on early modern England a similar notion, "that Troy is a precedent for England only in a good way." However, Section Two of Fantasies of Troy, "Rhetoric, Translation Imperii, and Trojan Legacy," undermines this received notion, as well. Here, the Elizabethan Troynovant is replaced in Guy-Bray's, Johnson's, and Andrew Hiscock's essays by a much darker sixteenth-century view. Guy-Bray shows that for the Earl of Surrey, even Virgil's Aeneid is less about empire-building than about death and painful memories. Johnson's essay on Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece and Hiscock's on Hamlet suggest that Surrey's view is not unique but fairly representative of sixteenth-century English writers, not so much celebrating their country as "mourning for a lost integrity." In Hiscock's essay, Hamlet shares with the citizens of Troynovant the wish to affiliate himself positively with the Troy story, but "interpretative crises" consistently prevent him from doing so. Troy's fall also dominates Stephanie Manger's essay, where we see Robert Garnier use the story (in his La Troade) to elucidate the horror of wars and the injustices perpetuated by the powerful ("l'horreur des guerres et les injustices perpetuees par les puissants").
The essays in Fantasies of Troy also move beyond conventional views of Renaissance chauvinism by revealing underlying skepticism or subversion in many treatments of the Troy myth. In Johnson's essay, Shakespeare "portrays the disjunctive violence inherent in the Troynovant tradition" in a way that "undermines the exemplarity of Troy's fall." Here, Shakespeare is critiquing the act of appropriation itself. In a similar vein, Michael Ullyot's essay, where the death of King Henry makes Droynovant untenable, shows that "even exemplars are vulnerable to shifts of occasion." Spenser also critiques exemplarity in the Faerie Queene, according to Bellamy's and Helfer's essays. In Bellamy's essay, Spenser's Paridell embodies "the possibility that no history or genealogy of Troy can be separated from the errancies of complex literary history," a metacritical stance Bellamy finds also in Ariosto's Orlando furioso and Chaucer's House of Fame. In Helfer's, "Britomart unwittingly points to the great lie (but still open secret) of Virgilian translatio: the nearly endless replication of new Troys, each of which seeks endless empire."
In contrast to these metacritical authors, as Lorna Jane Abray's essay shows, Christine de Pisan appropriates Troy's fall quite pointedly as an exemplum; over the course of her career, Christine repeatedly evokes Hector and his fate as a warning to the powerful dukes of her own time, whose lack of self-control might otherwise lead to "a kingdom-ruining holocaust comparable to the fiery destruction" of Troy. A damning image in Abray's essay, Achilles attacking Hector from behind as he bends over to loot a dead body, becomes humorous in Pamela Luff Troyer's. There, Troyer read the Middle English Seege of Troye as a "facetiously unorthodox version of a history venerated by high culture," persuasively arguing that passages once attributed to authorial ignorance are in fact deliberate innovations, "instances of the Bakhtinian transformation of the official culture into the carnivalesque" Fantasies of Troy shows that even some of the writers who valorize Troy do so subversively. For example, Michael Keefer in his essay argues persuasively that in Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, Faustus's revivified Helen of Troy should be read through the lens of several mediating authors to represent not merely a demonic spirit but a paradoxical, Gnostic figure of "eroticized wisdom-perhaps even the Wisdom of perversity."
This awareness of and sensitivity to the effects of mediating texts is a particular strength in the essays of Fantasies of Troy, extending the volume's perspective and impact beyond the purview of early modern scholarship into a diachronic study of potential interest to scholars of the classical, medieval, and modern periods as well. Students of early modern literature should take particular note of this book; scholars interested in the impact of literary antecedents or political conditions on literature also have much to gain from it.
State University of New York College at Plattsburgh
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2005|
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