Utopian Themes in Three Greek Romances

By Alvares, Jean | Ancient Narrative, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Utopian Themes in Three Greek Romances


Alvares, Jean, Ancient Narrative


Among scholars of Classics the study of utopian themes in the Greco-Roman world tends to focus on those ideal states imagined by philosophers like Plato or Zeno, utopian novellas such as those of Iambulus and Euhemerus; those near-utopias of the legendary past imaged by Plutarch and Dio of Prusa, the primitive or mythical paradise appearing in Hesiod's Golden Age and among Homer's Ethiopians and Pindar's Hyperboreans, plus the comic utopias of Aristophanes and other satirists. (2) But the wider field of current utopian studies also considers the ideal and utopian themes found in an extensive variety of materials, as well as those ideal elements which exist in even the most naturalistic literary work, if only ironically or in displaced form. The Greek romances are often called ideal, but a fuller description of their ideal dimensions needs to be presented beyond the usual references to the couple's status as aristocrats, their idyllic love, fidelity and enjoyment of the happy end. For example, one might consider the full ideological significance of the terms in which the romance's ideal dimensions are conceived, or how these ideal elements relate to a long and complex tradition of idealistic images found within literature, myth and religion, and thereby provide further layers of meaning.

Here I shall first set out some critical methods I have used, and then give the preliminaries of such a more complete description of idealistic images, motifs and themes mentioned above, concentrating on the romances of Chariton, Longus and Heliodorus. An understanding of these utopian themes, their presence and function within these texts, can better illuminate their full reception by their readers, as well as add details pertaining to their era's intellectual and ideological contexts and their role in the process of historical change. For those interested in teaching the ancient novel in a wider literary and humanistic context, these investigations can help connect the ancient Greek romances to later medieval romantic traditions and other presentations of ideal environments. This essay is a prolegomenon to a longer study, and thus is, like this project, to a certain degree experimental; I have utilized and combined methodologies less common to standard Classics scholarship in order to open further avenues for reading and interpretation and for the refinement of these methods.

The first approach I use is best called myth-symbolic criticism, which postulates that all artistic productions are extensively informed by preexisting structures of meaning, which include images and narratives. These building-blocks are often referred to as archetypes, although there is nothing mystical a la Jung about them. Since mythology, if not quite a total system of symbolic thought, is certainly a structured symbolizing activity, (3) myths, the earlier and more 'primitive' the better, are particularly useful for showing the most basic forms of these archetypes, since these narratives are less displaced by later concerns for realism and conventional morality. Scholars of myth and folktale commonly acknowledge the existence of 'story types' such as the Quest, and these have been fairly extensively catalogued. (4) In common with the structuralists, myth critics understand that forms of imaginative production (including literature) grow out of inherent ways of thinking about details of the world, human life and its needs, conflicts and contradictions. And just as forms of houses and tools have been refined over generations, so certain 'archetypal' story patterns, themes, characters and so forth have evolved with the expressive capacity to contain and communicate a culture's thoughts about the universe and human life within it. The patterns of narrative and image found within formal literature are related to, but not reducible to, their analogs found in myth, and scholars who focus on the use of such archetypes in literature must remain aware of the dialectical relationship between a mythic pattern within a literary work and such factors as the individual author's psychology and creativeness, the historical and cultural realities of his epoch, and the demands of the genre. …

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