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Classic Retellings

By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Monique Smith

 

As classic literature is so influential, many novels that follow are often a pastiche of a classic original or a retelling. These often find their way to become modern classics in their own right, but it is apt to remember that their roots are fundamentally classic. This issue collates some of the best classic retellings that will either further your love of classics or perhaps introduce you to their classic origins. Oftentimes these novels stand alone for their creativity, and the classic elements are either forgotten or the connection is not made between the two. This article also provides that connection by looking at a range of classic retellings. 

 

Beasts of England by Adam Biles


Beasts of England is a novel written by Adam Biles and first published in 2023 which has been recognised as an unofficial sequel to George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm. Manor Farm has reinvented itself into a petting zoo where both humans and animals can pet and ride the farm’s inhabitants. However, similar to Orwell’s novel, elections at the farm are rigged, the community is beset by factions and sacred mottos are being constantly changed. On top of the initial chaos, a mysterious “illness” has started spreading and killing the animals. 

 

Adam Biles’ novel honours several themes initially presented by Orwell’s Animal Farm: both works touch upon the idea of revolution, power struggles and corruption within political movements. Animal Farm explicitly critiques and exposes leaders who betray the ideas of revolution. Similarly, Beasts of England shares some concerns about power dynamics and the potential for exploitation within systems of governance. Animal Farm and Beasts of England serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of totalitarianism and the manipulation of language for political gain. 

 

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

 

Natalie Haynes explores the classic myth of Medusa in Stone Blind. We are all aware of Medusa’s cursed fate, where she is condemned to turn anyone who meets her eye to stone. Yet Haynes situates this tale against a feminist backdrop to provide Medusa with a voice. It is often forgotten that she too was once a kind, gentle young girl whose fate was drastically altered when she was assaulted by the Greek god Poseidon and punished by the Greek goddess Athene, who was driven by female rage and jealousy. We learn that Medusa was prey to misogynistic, patriarchal interests, and not the monster she has long been deemed to be. Instead, the reader has nothing but sorrow and pity for her endurance.

 

What makes this tale so captivating is Haynes’ ability to retell the story in a heartfelt, engaging manner, showing that figures in Greek mythology are not all that different to us. This novel provides a captivating retelling of the classic myth that is sure to change your preconceived notions of the mortal gorgon for the better.

 

Grendel by John Gardner

 

One of English literature’s first classics, Beowulf, has been the subject of many retellings and interpretations throughout history. John Gardner’s Grendel takes a stance from the perspective of the titular antihero, the perfect companion and antithesis to the original.

 

Gardner supplements the context of Grendel as found in the classic epic. Throughout the novel, Gardner introduces themes of morality as found in the original, with good versus evil, alongside myth and philosophy. By taking this perspective and giving a voice to the antihero, Gardner has provided a fascinating take which fans of Beowulf will thoroughly enjoy. Previously, our ideas of Grendel were shaped by interpretation and in this novel Gardner offers a deep insight into a perspective that explores Grendel’s society and how his identity as a product of isolation leads him to his fate. By powerfully providing this context, Gardner fuels a Byronic quality in the original monster, rethinking the classic but equally enriching the story with these complex layers. 

 

The Travelling Companion by Ian Rankin

 

Scottish writer Ian Rankin is a well-known powerhouse in the crime and thriller world, and his 2015 novella, The Travelling Companion, will keep you on the edge of your seat and leave your eyes bulging.

 

The novella follows Ronald Hastie during his summer working part-time at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris before he returns to Edinburgh to begin his PhD on Robert Louis Stevenson. When he meets a collector who claims to have the original first draft of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a reckless obsession stirs within him. 


Ronald meets the collector’s mysterious and enigmatic assistant, Alice, who weaves her way into his life and into his mind, and, much like in Stevenson’s novel, he begins to transform from a nice, average university student into something far darker and more sinister. Rankin draws parallels between the stories really well by bringing a new perspective to the original classic: instead of focusing directly on the classic novel, The Travelling Companion turns its focus to Robert Louis Stevenson and the fascinating circumstances that lead to the creation of the original story.

 

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