The Greek Mythology Trend
By Mary Karayel, Hayley Cadel, Alexandra Constable and Simone Monteiro
The Odyssey, The Iliad, Theogony; these are texts all of us have probably come across during school or university. The larger than life characters on heroic quests have always made great literature that we can still enjoy thousands of years later. Even now, there has been a huge resurgence in interest in Greek mythological texts, except we adopt a different perspective: from the point of view of minor characters like Ismene in the play Antigone’s Sister by Sayan Kent, or new novels such as Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman and Medusa by Jessie Burton. Some authors have even taken the events of myths and adapted them for a modern audience, such as Fran Ross, who wrote a book inspired by the story of Theuseus in the labyrinth. With summer approaching, why not take one of these brilliant retellings onto the hot white beaches of Mykonos or Athens as you delve into the traditions of mythological literature?
Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles are the perfect introductions to Greek mythology retellings. In reiterating and adapting the myths of gods and witches, she has skilfully woven contemporary issues into these stories, recounting gods with human characteristics. These page-turners bring sadness, pain, and joy to any reader who picks them up, offering a myriad of emotions to the narrative’s depth. Furthermore, an appeal of these stories is that they do not rely on the reader approaching them with an understanding of the myth on which they are based. The retellings introduce the reader to the characters and the narrative world they exist in, often by changing their narrative approach from the original. For example, Ariadne by Jennifer Saint is based on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur but told from the perspective of the two sisters, Ariadne and Phaedra and their journey through love, sisterhood and betrayal. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, featuring the Goddess of poetry, is centred on the causes and aftermaths of the Trojan War through the lens of women's sufferance. By drawing on the original myth yet adding a modern linguistic spin, this trend is more appealing and, therefore, engaging to the reader.
As briefly touched upon in this article, these books don’t just retell the stories, they also shift the perspective from which these myths are told. Hence, this trend acts as a reimagining. Madeline Miller does this with The Song of Achilles by reframing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus from platonic to romantic. A popular perspective shift is told from a female perspective, arguably as women have always been present in these stories but are rarely the focus. Pat Barker achieves this with The Silence of the Girls, another war setting told from the female perspective. Additionally, Margaret Atwood has also dabbled with this genre, writing The Penelopiad, a novel narrated from the perspective of Odyssus’ wife. The latter featured as part of the Canongate Myth Series, a series made up of eighteen novellas published by Canongate which retold or reimagined various Greek myths.
Aside from this, these stories don’t simply act as retellings but also inspire adaptations. Novels which don’t inhibit a specific mythological world often still have their narratives shaped by mythological stories; for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 winner Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Based on Antigone, the novel uses the myth to create a contemporary narrative of British Muslims in the UK amid a backdrop of Islamophobia. By doing this, Shamsie echoes the myth, but also creates a story which is less reliant on its specifics. As we have mentioned, this trend does not rely on readers having prior knowledge of myths, and this version of creative retelling is a particularly apposite example of this.
Another interesting trend within mythological narrative fiction is re-telling these stories from the monster’s or equally the villain’s perspective. For example, Autobiography of Red by Ann Carson is loosely based on the myth of Geryon, a mythological monster who was slain by the more famous Hercules. Carson offers a sympathetic imagining of Geryon’s backstory and, in doing so, approaches this well-known myth from a unique and unexplored angle. Similarly, though not explicitly Greek, the mythological monster Grendel - who first appeared in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf (700-1000) - becomes the protagonist of John Gardner’s 2002 novel Grendel. Like Carson, Gardner delves into the interesting but untold story of a mythological monster that has been sidestepped in popular culture by the more favourable hero who killed him.
If these are not enough to satisfy your curiosity about mythological stories, here are a few more books coming out in 2022:
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, which will be out in September this year, tells the story of “how a young woman became a monster. And how she was never really a monster at all,” offering the perspective of ‘villain’ Medusa. Also published in September is a feminist retelling of Penelope in Calire North’s novel Ithaca.
This trend of mythical retellings is ever-growing and we predict more authors will use these myths to inspire new stories and perspectives in the future.