Taking Poetic License

By an interesting coincidence, I happened to be at the ruins of Mycenae (Agamemnon’s haunts) when Wolfgang Peterson’s movie Troy made its debut in Europe (in May, 2004). I was with Archaeological Tours and everyone in our group decided we had to see it when we got back to the states.  And so I did: I thought it was a good movie (Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles was underappreciated by the critics, in my opinion), but I was amazed at the poetic license taken in it.  Let me briefly compare what was presented in the movie with the classical literature on the subject.

In the movie:  The war lasts a few weeks at most; Briseis is a relative of Hector and Priam, and Apollo’s priestess; Paris is quite young; Hector kills Menelaus (my jaw dropped on seeing this); Hector kills Ajax of Salamis; Achilles participates in the fall of Troy; Paris flees from burning Troy with Helen; Briseis kills Agamemnon (my jaw dropped again).

In classical literature:  The war lasts for ten years; Briseis is the daughter of the king of Lyrnessus, with no connection to the House of Troy; Cassandra, not Briseis, is Apollo’s priestess; Paris is the second oldest of Priam’s many sons (after Hector); Menelaus survives the war and reclaims Helen and eventually the two return to Sparta; Ajax of Salamis goes mad and kills himself; Achilles is killed before Troy falls; Paris is killed before Troy falls; Agamemnon returns to Mycenae where he is carved up by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, while taking a bath.     

A question arises here: how far can we go in exercising poetic license?  Apparently there is no limit to this, the guiding principle being do whatever you must do to make a story coherent, providing there is a modicum of resemblance to original works.  Does it matter?  Probably not; there have always been deviations made in such presentations.  So it is mainly a matter of honor, rather than obligation, to be faithful to original sources when writing on the subjects they introduced to the world (this applies only to fiction). 

Have I taken poetic license with Polyxena?  Yes I have.  I’ve reconstructed the last ten months of Polyxena’s life, hardly written about, so, in that respect, her entire story, except for her death, is my own creation.  Her stay with the Amazons was my idea, but once she returns to Troy, I faithfully follow the myths.  The events then described, with the people  involved, their personalities and attributes, and their fate -in all this, I tried to be true to what is said about it, making but two exceptions (Neoptolemus infatuated with Polyxena; Helenus, her brother, allowing himself to be taken captive by the Greeks). 

In one respect, I may have taken major poetic license (I consider all my others as minor).  In my novel, Achilles and Polyxena consummate their love for each other; ancient writers placed great value on Polyxena being a virgin when sacrificed, attaching an untarnished purity to this, I think.  I get around this by not having her tell anyone of her affair, so no one except Aphrodite (i.e. the reader) knows.  To those around her, she remains quite pure, unblemished as it were, and true to the literature.


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