The stories told by the Greeks and Romans resonate across cultures. These stories allowed them and us to explore their place in the cosmos and investigate what is is and was to be human. Yet, in the strictest sense, we know and they knew that these stories were not true. The Classical fantastic stretched the imagination and allowed an encounter with the world.
The stories the ancients told explored their human condition. For us those stories resonate and have resonated through the ages. They tell us something of our lives and other lives. They connect even as they explore the strangeness of the Classical world and its imaginations. Each retelling reshaped and recalled previous stories. In some instances stories connected with a past and a tradition and those earlier story-tellers who told and retold the stories.
In the myths, the stories found a parallel world, recognisable, but at a distance. In the mythic world strange and extreme things could happen. Such events and people might be violent, monstrously so. We can see the heroic, and question the heroic. They show us a nature that can be filled with love but also with horror. We encounter the central figures on the epic stage and the quiet or even silenced voices off stage. In such extremes, we encounter our essence and by contrast see better the everyday. They offer insight into our identities, our relationships, our rules of being and society.
In the monstrous, we find that which is beyond society and it conventions. In the world of the monster, the everyday is transformed offering a landscape for heroes. But the virtues of heroes are not unquestioned and landscapes are not just there to be conquered.
The comic holds the mirror to society, shifting its values and appearances, putting us out of ourselves so as to see ourselves. In the comic we are unified in our absurdity. What a strange idea that is.
And in the sublime, literature someone transcends the everyday. The spectacle reminds us of our humanity even as we are diminished before it.
The fantastic takes us beyond the world and gives us the means to understand ourselves in and out of the world.
Monster studies is a new theoretical approach which began to gain significant critical ground in the 1990s. It takes a broad cultural perspective to ask what precisely constitutes the monstrous, and how societies use the idea of monsters. We might understand monsters as guardians of borders, who tell us what is and is not taboo, or as ways of demonising the Other, people who are not 'like us'. Equally, monsters often communicate hidden, unacceptable desires, which society can only permit itself to enjoy if they are utterly defeated and destroyed at the conclusion of their narrative.
Classics has, of course, a wide range of monsters at its disposal in ancient myth, although one might argue whether the monsters are the fantastical creatures or the heroes who kill them. Thinking about monsters helps us understand ancient works which handle geography and the unbelievable creatures which live in different parts of the world, in particular in Herodotus and the encyclopedia of Pliny the Elder. Monsters also loom large in classical reception, where they have taken root in a wide range of films, books and computer games.
Liz Gloyn has explored the use of the classical monster in popular culture in her book Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, the first systematic application of a monster studies framework to classical reception. The book builds on her earlier work on the two Clash of the Titans films. In our teaching, classical monsters are a popular choice for undergraduate and MA dissertations. Monster studies is one perspective explored in Contemporary Approaches to Latin Literature, and mythical material including classical monsters often appears in our language courses.