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Book review: Gods and Swaggering Heroes: Swashbuckling Tales from the Greek Myths

By Ian Callinan - posted Wednesday, 27 September 2006

This is a very funny book about the Classical Greek Outback 3,000 years ago. Where we Australians have bunyips, rainbow serpents and Min Min lights, the Greeks had nymphs, flying horses, gods in winged chariots, monsters with six heads and sphinxes.

The average Australian thinks that the classical Greek myths are only for white-bearded scholars and academic eggheads. This need not be so. The myths are the greatest fantasy stories ever told and here they are presented with comedy and suspense and down-to-earth language by short story writer David Myers.

When I first read Glorious Gods and Swaggering Heroes I was reminded of the controversy following the publication of Robert Graves's I Claudius, which immediately became a best seller. The surest way to infuriate the critical or the academic establishment is to write a best seller on a topic which those two institutions regard as their exclusive domain.


The fact that the book may be earning an author large royalties only aggravates the angst. Those who claimed to know, said of I Claudius, that it was merely the retailing of the cheap gossip of Suetonius. Graves's riposte when the sequel to I Claudius, Claudius the God, was published, was to include in it his bibliography for both of the books. His critics immediately rushed to those sources but to their dismay found that Graves had, in all ways, been true to them.

David Myers has not made the same mistake with his Glorious Gods and Swaggering Heroes. Generously he has acknowledged all of his primary and secondary sources at the outset. It is only to be hoped - he deserves it - that Glorious Gods and Swaggering Heroes enjoy the same success as Graves's and becomes a much watched television series featuring the same stellar actors as the Claudius series did.

In writing Glorious Gods and Swaggering Heroes, David Myers demonstrates the breadth of his learning and the facility and the versatility of his writing. This book joins a veritable caravan of works by him: essays on English and German; numerous editorial contributions to other books; the picaresque semi-autobiographical novel, Benjamin Blauenblum; other novels including Cornucopia County; anthologies of short stories; Mudmaps to Paradise; the Secret Sins of the Suburban Swaggy; as well as many learned papers and monographs.

He is also an amusing correspondent although his fine letters have yet to be published. It is better that that not happen until, say, five years after his death, because the law of defamation precludes an action against a dead man.

Gods and Swaggering Heroes presents Greek mythology in a readily accessible and easily readable form. The presentation is informed and enhanced by David's broad general knowledge and deep readings of history and philosophy. As he says in his introduction, "Myths are retold because they mean different things to each new generation."

He adds, "Think, for example, of Jean Paul Sartre's atheistic satire on Zeus's cruel authoritarianism in his play The Flies, or of existentialism's championing of Prometheus and Sisyphus as the champions of enthusiasm against the Olympian gods. My awareness of these philosophical clashes has shaped the ambivalence and irony with which I re-tell the myths."


I must say that I did not myself detect too much ambivalence in David's representation of the stories, but I did enjoy his ironical approach to them. It is not always appreciated that most, if not all irony, includes satire, but that irony is the more refined art and that the converse does not always apply.

I think the particular attractions of the book are not just that it tells the old stories in a modern, lively and amusing way, but also that it does it in a painlessly erudite way. Indeed, there is something to be learned on every page.

"Psychopomp" may not be a word that one needs to use in every conversation, but we learn in Chapter 10, which is on Hades, that Hermes should be described as a psychopomp because he conducted all ghosts immediately after death down to the underworld.

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Published by Central Queensland University Press.

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About the Author

Justice Ian Callinan is a Member of the High Court of Australia and a playwright and author.

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