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Mythology and Folklore Retellings in LGBTQIA+ Literature

By Amy Blay, Rosie Green Shan Heyworth and Rhys Wright

Folklore and mythology from around the world are teeming with queerness, which can manifest as outright queerness or just subtext. One of the most fascinating trends of recent LGBTQIA+ fiction is the retelling and reinterpreting of myths and folklore. These retellings can foreground what had previously been queer undertones and cast an entirely new light on a story. Here are a few we think are worth a place on your bookshelf.

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Post-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Britain aren’t often used as a setting for historical fiction. Still, Lucy Holland’s Sistersong is a novel that brings together everything fascinating about this transitional period.

A historical fantasy novel, Sistersong retells the folk ballad, ‘The Twa Sisters’, as a tale of magic, love and sisterhood. Most variations of ‘The Twa Sisters’ generally tell the story of two sisters competing for a suitor, with one sister drowning the other. However, Holland re-envisions this ballad as an epic story of three magical siblings.

In the small kingdom of Dumnonia, looming Saxon invasions and a divisive transition from Celtic Paganism to Christianity are about to change everything. The three children of King Cador seek to forge their own paths amidst all of this. Riva, the eldest sister, is a skilled healer overcoming trauma and is troubled by the abandonment of ancient Pagan traditions. Sinne, the youngest sister, craves romance and adventure. Keyne, the middle sibling, was assigned female at birth but is determined to embrace his transmasculine identity despite societal opposition.

Holland’s representation of transgender identity in a historical setting is only made better by the strong narrative voice she provides Keyne, whose journey towards gender affirmation is a particular highlight of the novel. Holland also incorporates other pieces of British folklore into her novel alongside Celtic Paganism and characters from Arthurian legend, forming a rich tapestry of folkloric influences that adds texture and detail to her fantasy Britain.

Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane

Described as a “mold-breaking trans[gender] epic” perfect for fans of The Song of Achilles and Mary Renault, Wrath Goddess Sing is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Achilles as a transgender woman.

Achilles flees her home to live with the kallai, the transgender priestesses of Great Mother Aphrodite and prepares to die rather than fight as a man when Odysseus comes to recruit the ‘prince’ Achilles for a war against the Hittites. But when Athena, her divine mother, intervenes, Achilles’ body is transformed into the one she always dreamed of, and she is promised glory, power and victory in war. She sets out to war with a vengeance, but the gods are a dysfunctional, ruthless family, and at the centre of it all is Helen, Achilles’ newfound nemesis, who seeks a battle to the death.

Deane’s ambitious but fascinating spin on a well-known mythology piece features several LGBTQIA+ characters within a larger supporting cast. It is a story readers will surely want to revisit again and again.

She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya

She of the Mountains is many things at once: a coming-of-age story, a retelling of Hindu mythology, an intersectional exploration of queer identity and belonging, a novel and a visually stunning work of art.

Vivek Shraya intertwines the story of Hindu goddess Parvati, her son Ganesh and her husband Shiva with the story of a young South Asian man in Canada navigating his relationships with queerness, other people, his body and himself.

The two narratives work together to interrogate our assumptions and explore not only queerness and race but also what it means to be human. In both threads of the story, conventions are challenged. Parvati’s perspective is given importance over that of her male counterparts, and the young man resists restrictive labels and assumptions imposed by heteronormativity as well as homogenous white gay norms.

Raymond Biesinger’s stunning illustrations accompany Shraya’s powerful and poetic prose, making it even more impactful. Shraya’s experimental yet accessible novel is a short but thought-provoking and mesmerising read, bringing together ancient Hindu lore and a story that is relatable and relevant to many queer people today.

The Weaver and the Witch Queen by Genevieve Gornichec

The Weaver and the Witch Queen is rooted in the story of the quasi-historical figure, Gunnhild, wife of Eric Bloodaxe and, according to myth, a powerful sorceress. Gornichec takes this tale and, like many other historical and mythical retellings, flips it, presenting it from the perspective of a woman either side-lined for her husband’s fame or vilified for leading him down a path of tyranny. 

Both protagonists are women whose personalities and strengths differ significantly but are tied together by love and oath. While romance is important, the key relationships in the book are those of platonic and familial love, as Gunnhild and Oddny try to rescue their sworn sister from raiders. Enemies-to-lovers romances are well-developed, with different characters experiencing love differently – like Oddny, who is implied to be demisexual, unable to experience any sexual attraction before knowing someone well.

The reveal that one of the protagonists’ love interests is transgender feels natural and is handled sensitively. It’s important to the plot and character without being a central focus. Gornichec was inspired by a Viking grave containing weapons and bones that were later proven to be female. She follows a potential interpretation of this warrior as a transgender man rather than a shieldmaiden.

After reading Circe and Kaikeyi, this book is a great Norse take on a feminist retelling of legendary figures, with diverse and well-developed characters and thrilling adventures.


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