Great Writers Inspire: Turning Classic Texts into Contemporary Fiction

This past month has seen the release of Silver, the new novel by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion. The story is a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s adventure classic Treasure Island. The surname of the infamous pirate captain, Long John Silver, is used for Motion’s title. This establishes an immediate connection with Stevenson’s text, with ‘Silver’ also symbolising the precious metal the characters search for in their hunt for treasure – the ‘beautiful bar silver’ first described in Treasure Island.

 In an interview with The Guardian, Motion describes how, upon first reading Stevenson’s story, he ‘started to notice then how unresolved some things were’. Motion’s idea of resolution is evident in the references to Treasure Island throughout his narrative, including a seaman ‘by the name of Mr Stevenson –a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow, whose place was generally the crow’s nest’. The position of this character – not immediately part of the action, but constantly looking down from above –perfectly exemplifies the position of the original author in relation to the paralleling work of the modern writer.

Perhaps the most well know of these modern retellings is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a parallel novel to Jane Eyre. Rhys’ text acts as a prequel to Brontë’s narrative, rewriting the tale of Bertha Mason from a postcolonial gaze. In this example, the opportunities of rereading are revealed. Rhys challenges the authority of the past, exploring gaps and silences found in the original text to create a postcolonial and feminist discourse.

Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy reveals a modern authors response to a classic text in its intertextual conversation with Paradise Lost. In the Great Writers workshop held in April, Dr Margaret Kean identifies the possibility of introducing contemporary students toMilton’s poems through their familiarity with Pullman’s fiction, using Pullman’s marketability as a means of engaging a new generation of readers.

Modern sequels such as Silver are physical manifestations of rereading.  The classical text is rewritten into a contemporary form, containing recognisable nuances of the original, but also divergences that naturally arise from a modern retelling of classic fiction. The modern readers’ familiarity with a parallel text can lead to the discovery of the classic text. Most significant of all, however, is the nexus of rereading created by these contemporary versions. This connection allows us to trace the reverberations of influence, highlighting the ways in which great writers continue to inspire.

Watch Dr Margaret Kean discuss Pullman’s influence on Milton at the Great Writers Inspire workshop by following the link below. This podcast  includes several talks on rereading given by a panel of academics from Oxford’s English faculty:

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