SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part X of Many

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.
Part VII.
Part VIII.
Part IX.

Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.

This is the tenth part of a multi-part conference write-up.

We have reached breakfast on Monday. It might not be all downhill from here, but it’s certainly the home stretch, the last lengths in the Derby, the final mile from Marathon…

I even remember who I encountered at breakfast today, they being variously Andy Sawyer, Nick Lowe, Cecilie Flugt, and Andrew J. Wilson – although not all at once. I was privileged to have a rather involved discussion with Lowe about the idea of the fixity and knowability of the past in some fantasies, and how that plays in to the idea of the fixity and the knowability of the future through prophecy – and why ancient history/Classics/history and SFFnal geekery seem to go hand in hand. (Similar approaches to knowledge? Minds that see shiny interesting things and want to collect more? A similar sense of worldbuilding possibility, or alienation from the here-and-now?)

On Monday morning, all praise to the good sense of the organisers, proceedings kicked off at 1000 rather than 0930. I decided to hit up the panel on “Young Adult Fantasy,” chaired by Audrey Taylor (Anglia Ruskin University) and featuring papers by Leimar Garcia-Siino (University of Liverpool) and Lisa Maurice (Bar-Ilan University).

(At this point, dear readers, bear in mind that it’s the third day and my notes aren’t All That, if they ever were to start with. If I don’t do justice to anything, that’s on me, not the people giving the paper.)

The panel began with Leimar Garcia-Siino’s “Resurgence of Mythology in YA Fantasy.”

Started with especial reference to Rick Riordan, and the upswing in the amount of mythologically-influenced YA novels in the last decade. (I did not find her presentation visuals easy to follow, but that may just be me.) Of these, a large proportion feature ancient Greek mythology.

What does the portrayal of mythology imply? How is it structured in comparison with the past? Why is YA and MG fantasy interested in the intertextual aspect of myth?

What is the relationship of myth and fantasy? For fantasy has deep roots in myth. A “folding of itself.”

Riordan uses Greek mythology to fuel the story. Myth either represents a true thing that cannot be expressed directly, or something that is not always true in fact, but ought (socially, emotionally?) to be true. YA authors are myth-making with myth instead of from myth: when the use of myth is explicit, so is the subsequent deconstruction and reconstruction.

“Nostalgia reconstructs the whole issue of pastiche and projects it onto the collective & social level.”

Riordan updates the myths for the 21st century. “What makes a hero” in the Percy Jackson books is almost entirely contrary to the ancient Greek myths.

This is complicated by the acknowledgement of the shift between past and present, that myth is both past and fantastic but not part of the understood present. Transplanting gods to modern New York requires an awareness, a tongue-in-cheekness, of the distance and differences between the myth and the now. The archetypes being used have to be affected and changed as well. There is a subversion of the mythic root: the narrative requires it in order to make sense. There is a repositioning, a transformation of the archetypes using the structures of the modern Bildungsroman.

How much can the reader be aware of the ongoing metafictionality? See some kind of relationship to fanfiction. Fanfiction is defined as much by context as content: a certain wish-fulfillment quality is also at play in mythic YA. The myth is extended and transformed into modernity. Do readers seek out other novels that engage with the same sources?

The second paper was presented by Lisa Maurice, whose aspect and accent reminded me of my Roman archaeology lecturer. Although I confess her fashion sense did rather baffle me: her blue headshawl and billowy bright dress-thing stood out among the rather soberer (in colour alone: I speak to nothing else) other folks in the room. “From Chiron to Foaly: the Centaur in Classical Mythology and Fantasy Literature,” was a paper delivered with rapid-fire energy and verve, and strained my wrist’s ability to keep up. She made specific reference to four modern authors: CS Lewis, JK Rowling, Rick Riordan, Diana Wynne Jones, and Eoin Colfer.

The centaur, said Maurice, is a well-known but ambiguous figure in Classical mythology. (Lucretius, for example, says that centaurs can’t exist.) It is a representation of the human and the animal.

Chiron, the son of Chronos and a nymph, educated by Apollo and Artemis, who goes on to be trainer of heroes, who marries and has children, who is eventually transformed into a constellation, is different to all the other centaurs. The other centaurs are descended from Ixion, from the rape of Nephele. They are savage, depraved, sexually licentious, vulnerable to intoxication. Of them, Pholus is the only other civilised centaur, but in general centaurs are more animal than human.

C.S. Lewis’s centaurs are strong warriors, on the side of good, bearded and magnificent, noble, with esoteric knowledge. “Full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars.” They are only distantly related to their Classical counterparts: this aloofness is original to C.S. Lewis and really influences later writers.

J.K. Rowling’s centaurs have knowledge of the stars. They also stand aloof, although one (Firenze) serves as a teacher. They possess deep knowledge and dignity, but they have a wild side. They live in a forest, are savage in attack, and there is one scene which implies that Umbridge may have been raped by them.

In Rick Riordan’s books, the centaur Chiron is the mythic Chiron, who has his traditional role as a trainer of heroes. He is a wise father-figure and teacher, and is again different from other centaurs, but unlike Classical mythology’s centaurs, this Chiron refers to them as his family. (These other centaurs are “Party Ponies” who fight with paintball guns, for Riordan has an eye for the comic and absurd.)

Diana Wynne Jones’ A Sudden Wild Magic and Deep Secret feature centaurs, but these centaurs wear clothes on their top half. They are very intelligent but have no hunger for power. Have very human reactions and behaviour. While they’re in the Chiron tradition and bear the marks of C.S. Lewis’ influence, they don’t fill a traditional Chiron role.

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl novels feature the centaur Foaly, an intelligent inventor, arrogant, conceited, a “cantankerous Q-substitute,” who ends up married with children. Colfer’s centaurs are intelligent but don’t possess magic, and are the physically least human of his non-human characters. Centaurness invokes Foaly’s uniqueness.

As Maurice concludes: “the centaur has developed, cantering a very long way from its original roots.”

We shall resume with the next session, “Reusing Mythical Figures.”

6 thoughts on “SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part X of Many

  1. I found Ursu’s take on Greek mythology more interesting than Riordan’s, myself, even though I didn’t find her trilogy quite satisfying on a deep level; it went a little too often for the superficial-and-funny rather than considering the depth of things. But one thing I liked about her approach was that she went, “What if the Greek myths were all true?” and let her modern characters conclude, “Then this is terrible, and we should fix things.” Which seemed in some ways a healthier approach than trying to look at what is monstrous by modern standards and kinda go “Oh, but we’re still totally in favor of these horrible beings being in charge because…uh…look! A Titan! Woo, us!”

  2. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XI of Many | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  3. Much though I would like credit for the more relaxed start on Monday, it is down to the coincidence of both Monday morning sessions losing a paper.

  4. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XII of Many | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  5. Pingback: SFF/Classics Conference, Liverpool, Part XIII of XIII | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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