This article was originally published in Cherwell
In his novel The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley wrote that “the past is a different country; they do things differently there.” It’s a statement reflective of the allure and strangeness that comes with a retrospective gaze, reflecting the metamorphic power of time, whether in changing a person from childhood to adulthood, a city from decade to decade, or an ancient civilisation from rise to ruin.
However, obsessed our society may be with the promise of progress, of moving forward and improving, there remains in most of us an unshakeable fascination with the past.Whether in the enduring popularity of historical fiction, or in the constant appeal of nostalgia and re-watching our favourite childhood films, the cultural zeitgeist is constantly affected by a creative fixation with history.
Christopher Booker’s theory of “The Seven Basic Plots” gave birth to the popular idea that all fiction can be divided into seven stories. The academic validity of this theory has had aspersions cast upon it by experts, but there is an undeniable appeal to the logic behind the idea.
It is hard to deny, when appreciating the scope of fiction, that there does seem to exist a penchant for recurring patterns and tropes. The “rags-to-riches” story, for example, has held unwavering popularity from Cinderella to Rocky, the “hero’s journey” is visible everywhere from the Homeric epics to Harry Potter.
But in spite of these obvious patterns, it seems inescapably reductive to try to condense all the art people have created across generations and nations into a handful of archetypes.
The idea that we have been telling the exact same stories over and over again is demonstrably false, and the effects of current events and contemporary realities on works are undeniable.
It is hard to argue that Animal Farm, for instance, could have been written without the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, or that Kurt Vonnegut would have penned Slaughterhouse Five had he not experienced World War II. The stories we tell change over time as they reflect the world around us. But sometimes that change comes with the reshaping of our memories.
Orange Prize winner Madeline Miller, for example, has done what so many classicists have done before her and retold The Iliad and The Odyssey. But Miller’s retellings – which come in the shape of her novels The Song of Achilles and Circe – are clearly reframed to draw out new stories from some of the oldest works in Western literary tradition with the benefit of a modern gaze.
Miller is a Classics teacher with a passion for Homer’s works, but both her retellings are borne of an inherent frustration with the original material or the way history has remembered it. The Song of Achilles reframes The Illiad as a love story between Achilles and Patroclus, acting as an argument against academics who claimed that such a romance would never have been included by Homer. Circe is Miller’s rebellion against Homer himself – her frustration at the lack of female characters in epic literature and the fact that the original Circe’s episode reduced her to an obstacle for Odysseus to vanquish drove her to centre her version of the epic in women and female power.
There’s something undeniably powerful when current ideas about LGBTQ+ Rights or Feminism are transplanted into the works that are woven into the historical fabric of our society. It is an implicit acknowledgement that the empowerment of women, or members of the LGBTQ+ community, is something that should have been historically normalised, as opposed to a result of newfangled ‘political correctness’. The temptation to reimagine old works with our modern socio-political lens is difficult to resist. Instead of discontinuing our appreciation for works that we can now see are laced with period-typical bigotry, it feels creatively empowering to rework them, to thread our own ideas and identities into the stories that are familiar to us, that shaped the society we live in.
This love affair with the past is innate to human beings, because, as George Orwell put it, “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”.
We are drawn to this kind of collective look backwards at our social DNA, but intrinsically linked with this retrospective tendency is the need to grapple with the flaws we perceive in bygone times, the differences between our time and the times past preserved in stories.
The works of Shakespeare, for example, have etched indelible marks on the English language, and the popular and academic cultures and storytelling traditions of the whole world. The Taming of the Shrew has long-frustrated modern audiences, the comedy of manners ending jarringly with a monologue in which the spitfire lead character, Katherine, declares not just her subservience to her husband, but the inferiority of females to males.
Instead of consigning the ‘problem’ play to the shadows of obscurity however, contemporary directors have set their sights on grappling with the residue of the deeply entrenched misogyny of a bygone time and repurposing it as a platform upon which to critique modern issues. A recent production of the play, for instance, framed the final monologue as a hostage video, whilst another employed an entirely male cast to perform in this “battle of the sexes.” And a repertoire as extensive as Shakespeare’s provides innumerable lenses by which archaic stories can be used as tools with which to deconstruct current issues.
A collection of 17th century English plays have been immortalised and constantly reincarnated, moulded and shaped to reflect the stories and values of a myriad of societies and cultures. Haider, a 2014 Indian film, reimagines Hamlet as a look at the Kashmir territory conflict in 1995; Disney re-envisioned the same play as a bildungsroman set in the African savannah, The Lion King. The star-crossed lovers Romeo & Juliet have had their tragic tale echoed in everything from West Side Story to High School Musical to Gnomeo and Juliet.
Stories are not told to be forgotten, and we should expect that they carry their history forward with them. Even something as simple as the nursery rhyme “ring-a ring-a roses,” a refrain as common on playgrounds as a swings or slides, is burdened by the story of Bubonic plague. Although urban skylines are hewn with skyscrapers that reach higher and higher each day, the appeal of visiting fairytale castles and old stately homes never diminishes.
However, many new children’s books come out, parents never stop telling the same fairy tales before bed. The fact is, the stories from the past have endured, have continued to echo across generations, because they appeal to some intrinsic facet of our experience. Our nature, as a society, as a culture, is to remember our past, not to abandon it. Even as technology and science advances, our memory grows no less strong. Art is, at its crux, a form of self-expression, and when so much of the self is informed by one’s history and by one’s past, it is inevitable that artists will work with history as with any other material. They will explore the world as it is now by re-examining what it once looked like.