Mythology Throughout Literature
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Dani Basina
Mythology is an important part of human history. It is a part of beliefs, superstitions and even fears and nightmares. It has given us tales of gods and devils, monsters and fairies, princes and princesses, allies and villains. Myth has been a big part of literature, too. Originating from mouth to mouth, and from one person to another, it eventually became from pen to paper. This is why the classics team has decided to dedicate this issue to mythology. Using a few classic novels to trace the inclusion of mythology in different plots, this feature will look into the magic behind mythology books, with a look into how this has seeped into modern fiction.
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
Homer is perhaps the author most synonymous with mythological literature and is undoubtedly deserving of being recommended in this feature. The Ancient Greek writer is estimated to have written The Iliad and The Odyssey in approximately 8th century B.C. Both are truly remarkable epic poems that have consistently stood the test of time and are some of the oldest surviving pieces of Western literature.
The Iliad has a plot that might be reminiscent to readers of Madeline Miller, as it is set during the Trojan war. The poem details the events between the battle of Achilles and Agamemnon, including reference to the legends that surround this great battle. The siege of Troy is a great story in mythology, and Homer executes this through dactylic hexameter. As is the nature of mythology, Homer articulates the intrigue in tandem with the storytelling in the poem. Through prophecies and legend, the reader is able to experience all aspects of the war. This lends great excitement to reading The Odyssey, a considered sequel to The Iliad. The novel follows Odysseus after the Trojan war. His is a perilous journey which lasts as long as the war itself – ten years. En route, Odysseus is faced with many of the beloved features of Greek mythology, such as challenges and quests, and many commercialised figures in Greek myth, such as Athena, Zeus and Menelaus. This epic poem is also told in dactylic hexameter, making The Odyssey an essential companion to The Iliad, despite each being written independently of the other..
The form of both of these examples is early proof of how literature was destined to be orally received, expressing the power of not only the written word, but also the magic in these retellings. There is no surprise that Homer is still largely celebrated and a key part of the reproduction of mythology in literature.
The Golden Pot by E.T.A Hoffman
E.T.A Hoffman’s collection The Golden Pot, published in 1814, is a whimsical exploration of the relationship between the supernatural and the real. His stories often have mythological or biblical roots which Hoffman uses to enhance his plot and characterisation. The Golden Pot references mythologies of the serpent, witchcraft and the world of Atlantis which intertwine with the ordinary world. The mundane trajectory of the protagonist Anselmus is derailed after he begins translating documents and the process reveals the mystical elements of the story. Hoffman’s unique storytelling provides a perfect escape because of the weaving between reality and mythology which leaves the reader intrigued. Although the story is not based on a specific myth, it is reminiscent of the fanciful childhood tales which Hoffman bases in the ordinary city of Dresden to emphasise the unexpectedness of the magic. The Golden Pot is a story rooted in fantasy but it is also an exploration of love, loyalty and the quest for harmony. Despite the unusual story, Hoffman was a leading Romantic author who is often overlooked for his contributions to the movement.
The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller
For centuries, readers and authors alike have been fascinated with Greek mythology. These epic tales of envious gods and awe-inspiring heroes, and adventure-filled stories of love, lust, greed and vengeance, are continual sources of entertainment – especially as writers continue to masterfully adapt such tales for a modern-day audience. Madeline Miller is an author who has captured reader’s hearts with her intricately woven retellings of classic Greek myths. Her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (2011) is a heart-rendering (but extremely beautiful) adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus. Miller particularly focuses on the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, resulting in a spell-binding novel that leaves you wondering how the story could have gone any differently. In 2018, Miller weaved her magic again with Circe, writing a book from the perspective of the titular minor goddess in Greek mythology who is featured in Homer’s Odyssey. Miller develops the character of Circe with a feminist gaze, presenting an indomitable, complex character who gradually claims her agency and power after she is exiled from the male-dominated environment she grew up in. Both of these novels are masterful examples of how to adapt a classic myth for a modern-day audience.