“Your highs are Olympian, your lows like a plunge into the River Styx”
September 16, 2018 4:32 PM   Subscribe

10 Brilliant Retellings of Classical Myths by Female Writers [Literary Hub] “There’s something about our oldest stories that never gets old. Rereading classical mythology is for me an exercise in surprise and recognition mixed together. There are things I’ve always missed in a myth, the previous time around, that strike me as utterly vital to understanding its meaning. I believe that myths hit us somewhere below the brain, at some irrational, dreamlike level that somehow feels truer than ordinary stories. When I read Ovid’s myth of Apollo pursuing Daphne, “one made swift by hope and one by fear,” and the nymph metamorphoses into a laurel tree to escape the amorous god forever, it disturbs and thrills me in ways I find hard to explain.* [...] The books in this list are the smartest, most beautifully wrought adaptations of classical myths I’ve ever encountered—and they all just happen to be by female writers.”

• Novelizing Greek Myth [The New Yorker]
“The contemporary mainstream novel, which is realistic in technique and concerned, more often than not, with the lives and psychologies of ordinary people, doesn’t seem an ideal vessel for tragedy, with its stiffly operatic formal conventions, its grandiose royal protagonists, and its plots inflected by the supernatural. And, as “House of Names” (Scribner), a new novel by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, suggests, the Oresteia narrative in particular—precisely because it has already been endlessly reimagined, reworked, expanded, and adapted—poses special problems for even the most inventive and subtle writers. Like his ancient predecessors, Tóibín wants both to enhance and to interrogate a much told tale. A nice touch is that, in “House of Names,” Clytemnestra and Electra each get to tell their own stories: chapters devoted to their first-person narratives of the familiar events alternate with sections about Orestes’ adventures. The Orestes story is related in the third person, a device that deprives the eponymous hero of Aeschylus’ trilogy of his own voice—the author’s sly riposte, perhaps, to the fact that in so many Greek myths women’s concerns, like their bodies, are subordinated to those of men.”
• Homer's 'Unwilling' Women Are No Longer Quiet In 'The Silence Of The Girls' [NPR]
“"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles ... How the epithets pile up," begins The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker's tart retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Achilles' concubine, Briseis. "We never called him any of those things," she continues, "we called him 'the butcher.'" In the Iliad, the men are superlative. They insist on their own magnificence, even in defeat. "I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son," says the Trojan King Priam, begging for the body of his son back. Barker gives Briseis, standing nearby, a bitter rejoinder: "And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers." In a world of men obsessed with their own pre-eminence, how much more powerful is Briseis's claim that she is just one of many.”
• Circe by Madeline Miller review – myth, magic and single motherhood [The Guardian]
“Circe, the subject of her second book, is also a nymph. “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Daughter of a naiad and Helios the sun god, Circe is immortal, and this first-person account is a kind of greatest hits of the ancient Greek world: Prometheus and his endless punishment, Scylla and Charybdis, Hermes, Apollo, Athena, Daedalus and his son Icarus, Ariadne and the Minotaur (who is Circe’s nephew), Jason and the Golden Fleece – and Odysseus, of course, who in Book 10 of The Odyssey encounters Circe when he lands on her island and she changes some of his sailors into pigs. As so often, the gods are portrayed as vain and retribution-minded; born bursting with “excellences”, as Miller’s Circe puts it, “they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”. If this was all there was (and at the beginning of the novel, it is all it feels there is going to be), Miller would be dealing with a problem familiar from magic realism: if literally anything can happen, if there is always some new monster or god with new powers then why care about any of it? But Miller also knows that, as with the best magical realism, the real power doesn’t lie in the ostensible facts of the narrative, but in its psychology.”
posted by Fizz (21 comments total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Someone please read these and rec me specifically the ones that won't leave me trembling with rage; I spend too much time being angry these days.
posted by grandiloquiet at 4:45 PM on September 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Wouldn't a plunge into the river Styx make you invulnerable?
posted by biffa at 4:50 PM on September 16, 2018

The only one of these I've read is The Song Of Achilles, which was Very Good. I have Atwood's Penelopiad already on the list.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:28 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can vouch for House of Names, which I liked quite a bit.

Speaking of women reworking Greek mythology: Mary Renault's realist take on Theseus, The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:16 PM on September 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I just finished Circe by Madeline Miller and it was super good. One of my favorite reads of the summer. I grew up reading the Greek myth anthologies & really appreciated this as a retelling and re-focusing from the POV of a bit-player in so many of the big tales.
posted by Jugwine at 6:26 PM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is this where I get to recommend the poetry of A.E. Stallings? Samples:

Eurydice's Footnote

Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother


and my favorite, First Love: A Quiz
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:28 PM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was surprised not to see Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia on this list, although I suppose it's not a retelling so much as an expansion of the story of one woman with a pivotal role in the Aeneid. I enjoyed it a great deal when I read it eight or ten years ago.
posted by col_pogo at 6:30 PM on September 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

Are there any of these that are more in line with historical fiction, with specific details about life in Mycenaean times? My favorite book of this type is Mary Renault's THE KING MUST DIE, and that was very historical fiction-y.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 6:33 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I came to make sure Lavinia was included, and I'm glad col_pogo did it via comment. Highly recommend Le Guin's writing in general, and still I think back upon (or am reminded of) this expansion at odd and unexpected times.
posted by one teak forest at 6:45 PM on September 16, 2018

I have read the Winterson and Atwood entries from the Canongate Myth Series and can confirm their excellence. Winterson often writes re-tellings of myths or new stories that definitely have a mythic quality to them in general, and basically all of her works would fit into this category to some degree.
posted by eviemath at 8:12 PM on September 16, 2018

Wouldn't a plunge into the river Styx make you invulnerable?

You're thinking of that feminist retelling of "Mr. Roboto"
posted by thelonius at 9:39 PM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is Hadestown on here? Yes, yes, good. Hadestown is basically perfect, 100% rec. Over the concept album (which is also great) I recommend the live cast recording of the NYTW production with Patrick Page and Amber Gray as the definitive version. It's so, so, so good and it's coming to Broadway in like five months!!! I could talk about Hadestown all day.
posted by colorblock sock at 10:16 PM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I thought "Weight" and "The Penelopiad" were excellent. "Autobiography of Red" was OK but it's pretty contemporary with the mythical elements mostly implicit. "Song of Achilles" was good but the romance veers a bit towards the slushy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:32 PM on September 16, 2018

*spoilers I guess for Songs of Achilles*

Someone please read these and rec me specifically the ones that won't leave me trembling with rage; I spend too much time being angry these days.

Song of Achilles may not be for you. I enjoyed it but Deidamia gets pretty much effed over in your classic Greek mythology way, and there's also a cheating scene which I felt happened for an uncompelling reason in what was basically a romance novel.
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 1:36 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Well, my reading list just got a lot longer. Better stock up on eye drops.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:53 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is basically my favorite genre, hooray!
posted by lydhre at 11:49 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Marrion Zimmer Bradley forever changed my reading of the Troy myth. I love her version so much more and I suspect I'd appreciate the books in the OP. Adding some to my wishlist for later reading. Myths are cool but so often are shitty stories coloured by fucked up gender politics I doubt were always even in play when the myths took place or are set.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:29 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would have thought that Francesca Lia Block would be on the list. She often weaves stories around classical Greek mythology. I really like her short story, "Psyche's Dark Night".
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:42 PM on September 17, 2018

I would very much recommend Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, a contemporary retelling of Antigone.
posted by Laura_J at 7:59 AM on September 18, 2018

I very much enjoyed The Dark Wife, by S. E. Diemer, a f/f Persephone retelling. I'm sure it's not as, I don't know, deep and literary as the ones on the list above, but it's sweet and really lovely.

You can also download it for free from the link above! As per the author: "It is offered as a free download in the hopes that everyone who needs to read it will be able to do so."
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 2:13 PM on September 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love this genre. I'll second Lavinia. Sylvia V. Linsteadt's collection "Our Lady of the Dark Country" has a couple of incredible riffs on Greek and Roman myth that really shook me - her writing is delirious and mystical where LeGuin's is anthropological. But it's a grim and apocalyptic book with its hope off in the far distance, so if you need your hope more within reach, maybe wait a while...
posted by McBearclaw at 9:52 PM on September 18, 2018

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