Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2022

Tales from the Greek, by John Hughes with artwork by Marco Luccio

Tales from the Greek is not just a book, it’s a work of art… and I feel immensely privileged to have a copy.

Some readers may remember that I reviewed a beautiful book called The Garden of Sorrows, (UWAP, 2013) which was a collaboration between author John Hughes and Marco Luccio.  Well, I have just recently received a limited edition copy of their latest collaboration, Tales from the Greek, for review.  Lavishly illustrated, it features over 200 B&W works of art, in a bold hardcover edition (18x22cm) on fine quality, sturdy paper.  I borrow here from Marco Luccio’s website to describe the artworks which are dramatic and gritty:

With Tales from the Greek, Luccio’s artworks are instantly confronting, causing prompt reaction and attention from the spectator. When drypoint has been the chosen medium, Luccio’s signature style has shaped his visual interpretation into sensational yet striking artworks. Further, when Luccio has employed charcoal within the artworks, they are bursting with classical and sculptural chiaroscuro allowing him to capture Hughes’ dramatic emotive content.  Beyond the tense beauty of Luccio’s artworks, the thoughtful spectator will be generously rewarded by their association to the ancient Greek myths explored by Hughes.

This book is exquisite, and you can see some of the artwork here, where you can also see the size of the book:

As Tony from Tony’s Book World so recently pointed out in his post ‘Why I Enjoy the Greek Myths, Greek myths and legends have a universal, enduring appeal.  Unlike monotheistic gods, Greek gods have flaws — they have all the faults that humans have, along with the power to create havoc with them when they interact with humans.

The eight narrative adaptations of Greek myths and tragedies include the following, but they are not all set in Ancient Greece:

  • Corruption
  • Knots
  • Crossings
  • Riddle
  • Lady Macbeth of Tamarama Bay
  • Two Versions of Achilles
  • Threnody, and
  • The Lost Lives of Sisyphus

The first story is aptly titled ‘Corruption’ — it features the corruption of the body, the corruption of ideals, and the almost-successful corruption of the innocent.  It is based on the story of Philoctetes the master archer, who gets a brief mention in The Iliad… where we learn only that Philoctetes , en route to the war with Troy, was abandoned all alone on Lemnos because he was incapacitated by a snake bite.

Then men who lived in Methone and Thaumacia,
men who held Meliboea and rigged ridged Olizon;
Philoctetes the master archer had led them on
in seven ships with fifty oarsmen aboard each,
superbly skilled with the bow in lethal combat.
But their captain lay on an island racked with pain,
on Lemnos’ holy shores where the armies had marooned him,
agonized by his wound, the bite of a deadly water-viper.
There he writhed in pain but soon, encamped by the ships,
the Argives would recall Philoctetes, their great king.
But not even then were his men without a captain,
yearn as they did for their lost leader. (Homer’s Iliad, Book 2, Lines 817-828, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, ISBN 9780140275360, p.122 )

… Sophocles, however, tells us more about the circumstances of this cruel abandonment.  His tragedy Philoctetes (premiered in 409 BC) begins with Odysseus justifying his actions to Neoptolemus:

This is the coast of Lemnos, a desolate island
In the midst of the sea, where no man walks or lives.
Now, young Neoptolemus, son of the great Achilles,
This is the place where many years ago,
Acting on the orders of our overlords,
I left Philoctetes the Malian, Poeas’ son,
Lamed by a festering ulcer in his foot,
At which he would moan and howl incessantly;
Our camp was never free of his frantic wailing —
Never a moment’s pause for libation of prayer,
But the silence was desecrated by his tortured cries. (Sophocles ‘Philoctetes’, translated by E.F. Watling, in Electra and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, ISBN 0140440283, p.163)

From these sources, Hughes weaves magic.  Odysseus’s deception is more manipulative, Neoptolemus is more anguished about being roped into this duplicity against his will, than in the rather wooden words of Watling’s translation of the play.  The suffering of Philoctetes is vividly revealed as he struggles to retain his humanity.  In his efforts to tame a hawk and shape it to his ways, he learns that to teach an animal you must be taught by it.  

What point in roping a wild creature into human ways when it was this very wildness that you craved?

To cease being a man.

He pushed his free hand through his hair exposing a long scratch across his wrist.  He had made a glove from one of the straps of his shield but preferred to let the hawk sit on his bare fist.  There were puncture marks behind each knuckle, scabbed with blood.  Such pain was good, he thought.  It took his mind off his foot.  Whenever the bird returned to his fist and rooted its claws in his skin, it was as if he became a phantom limb.  He could no longer remember why he had thought that he might tame it, but as the days passed in his cave, it was his own wildness that seemed to peel away,  It was no tough bark he shed, but the new rawness beneath it was as hard as stone.  His thought ran over it the way his fingers felt for the soft parts of his wound.  (p.15)

I read recently a rather dismissive comment about The Iliad, that it was just about war.  To me, the epic is a launching pad for thinking about human suffering.  ‘Corruption’, like David Malouf’s exquisite Ransom, (see my review here) is an example of how a discerning reader can extrapolate from a small easy-to-overlook moment in the epic, to make us see its implications more clearly.  ‘Corruption’ is a modern story exploring the legacy of guilt, set in an ancient landscape.


Retelling each story in a different way, Hughes offers unforgettable insights.  When Ovid — in exile for the audacity of his poetry — narrates ‘Crossings’, Hughes inverts the way we usually interpret the story of Icarus.  I have always heard it told as a warning against the hubris of Icarus, who ignores his father’s warning and flies too close to the sun. It is his arrogance that causes his death.  But in Hughes’s version, Icarus is more humble: he tells Daedalus that man is destined to fall, and cannot escape his fate with wax and feathers.

Ovid senses the similarities between them:

It has only struck me quite recently, exiled as I am for my own creations, that Daedalus’ magic was also his curse; his creations enabled me to cheat nature in the manner of gods, to leave behind, if only for a moment, the limits of their humanness. (p.123)

Man’s fate is to know his limits yet behave as if they are not real.  That is his glory.  His tragedy too. (p.123)

Luccio’s stunning artworks allude to the story in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious.  The images of clocks in ‘Riddle’ allude to the way Hughes plays with time. This is how it begins:

It is not entirely certain where time goes when it passes.  For the ancients, the answer was clear: the past is the underworld.  The riddle of how eternity might be housed is thus the riddle of memory.

But what if time’s arrow could run the other way?  What is Fate was this running in reverse?  If Fate is real, past and future are interchangeable.

Eternal recurrence, in other words. (p.164)

‘Riddle’ tells story of Antigone in reverse.  In this Good Reading podcast Hughes talks about how he approached the stories partly as a technical exercise, experimenting with doing things differently.  So in this story death is presented as a birth.  Technically it was the most difficult to write because it’s like looking at a film running backwards.  Antigone feels vertigo after her death, helpless to prevent everything that had happened, from happening again.

What was harder to endure was the growing sensation that she was the cause of the suffering she beheld, as if she was some kind of disease. This sense of a curse was not misplaced.  Not only did she seem to blight everything she touched, like any true prophet she was unable to make anyone heed her words.  (p.167)

What is clear from this version of the story is that in Greek tradition, if subject to a curse, the future already exists and is as inescapable as the past.  Luccio illustrates this with clever ambiguity by depicting the three actors of this drama as marionettes who might also be acrobats using the earth only as a point of departure.

‘Lady Macbeth of Tamarama Bay’ is a radical departure from the original myth.  It features a Russian émigré called Moses Mirakovsky and his wife Alexandra, who is grieving for the loss of her child and so anguished by her longing for another that she develops a belief in the occult.  An old flowerseller — who seems to be like Hecate in Macbeth, encourages Alexandra’s fascination with tarot cards and ‘reading the tea-leaves’.  She tells Alexandra that she will have another, despite her age. This is a grave challenge for Moses who has realised early that most men fail to possess the woman they truly love and is tormented by her irrational belief in signs and portents.  The tragedy in this story is an abduction in which she makes him complicit.

Tales from the Greek is not the kind of book that one can blithely order from a bookstore.  But if you want to have your own copy of this very special book that is also a work of art to treasure, visit Marco Luccio’s website here.

Author: John Hughes
In collaboration with the artist Marco Luccio
Title: Tales from the Greek
Book design by Marco Luccio, Chris Bryan and Han Jiang
Artwork photographed by Robert Wagner
Publisher: Turtle and Bull, 2022
ISBN: 9780648506119, hbk, 401 pages including an Afterword by Marco Luccio.
Review copy courtesy of Marco Luccio and John Hughes.

This 1st edition is limited to just 500 copies, numbered and individually signed.
Designed and printed in Australia.
400+ pages printed on 145gsm paper with hard-cover and dust jacket that features over 200 artworks.
$220


Responses

  1. Fascinating piece, Lisa, and having had a look at the video I can see the artwork is stunning!

    Like

    • It shows what can happen when the artist is given a free hand to interpret the text in his own way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, wow!
    What a stunning collaboration. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I have a couple of regular customers who I will lead in this direction.

    Like

    • Book collectors? or Art collectors? Because if art, some of the prints of the artworks are available for sale, at Luccio’s website.

      Like


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