Spenser wrote “The Faerie Queene” while working as a high-level British colonial administrator in Ireland, implementing brutal tactics of oppression against the native population. Virgil wrote the “Aeneid” in the first years of the Roman Empire, as Augustus attempted to reshape his image from that of a ruthless, warmongering autocrat to that of a beneficent leader. Homer composed the “Odyssey” in Athens around the end of the 8th century B.C., some 100 years before the city-state developed the first form of democracy.
By “grappling with questions about the relationship of individual to community,” Wilson said, Homer anticipated that shift.
Perhaps because epic poems have so often originated in times of political upheaval, the lessons readers have taken from them have changed, sometimes radically, over the decades and centuries. The history of the “Aeneid,” Bartsch said, shows how great the range of interpretations can be: Early Christian medievalists “chose to read the poem allegorically as a bildungsroman of the good Christian everyman”; Mussolini upheld it “as supportive of the resurgence of the Roman Empire”; and certain 19th-century Americans saw it as a “poem about a group of refugees who head westward to found a new nation, defeat the natives in war, take over that land and call it God’s will.”
Those interpretations aren’t necessarily mistaken, Bartsch said; they’re an understandable result of “people thinking their reading supports their set of enduring values.”
But what most unites this new set of books is that they seek, by embracing the neglected complexity of their source texts, to challenge existing values, not affirm them. As Tom Phillips, the author of “Untimely Epic: Apollonius Rhodius’ ‘Argonautica’” (Oxford University Press), put it: “You can’t simply act as Homeric heroes did.”
Headley gave an example. Readers of “Beowulf,” she said, often “have this understanding that we are essentially on the side of the human characters.” But the monsters the humans battle are “described as canny, and brave, and intelligent,” and given persuasive emotional back stories. “Beowulf,” seen from their perspective, is a story about the human instinct to “create a situation in which your neighbor is the monster.” The accepted value may be that humans are the heroes; the monsters, for their own good reasons, have a different idea.