Why have myths and a fascination for mythology stood the test of time? Perhaps because they speak to us on two levels; the spiritual and the psychological. Whilst showing us the ethereal beauty of Gods and mythical creatures alike, myths seek to emphasise the sheer resilience of humanity. The hero succeeding against all odds, the brilliance of the human warrior and their insatiable need to persevere.
Shakespeare, Milton and many modern authors such as Margaret Attwood and Stephen Fry have taken to the retelling of myths by adding their own interpretations and perspectives. This article will reveal my personal favourites, hoping to reignite your passion for mythology, highlighting why mythological retellings are so important today.
1. Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe tells the story of the nymph who was daughter of the sun god, Helios. From the offset, Miller’s emphasis on Circe being a nymph implies that Circe is considered disposable, objectified and incompetent. It is from this point that the character of Circe begins to develop. Her journey is entwined with eminent Greek tales, such as the punishment of Prometheus by the Olympians, Scylla, Icarus and his father Daedalus, Jason, and the birth of the Minotaur. She is a strong influence within these tales, which contributes to her ever-growing magic. What was most profound within this novel was the power of loneliness and motherhood. Circe’s banishment by her father leads to centuries of loneliness, with only the occasional notorious visitor. It is only when motherhood is bestowed upon her that she understands true pain, true sacrifice. It is what separates her entirely from the Gods and Titans. She is painfully human. Even her power is not a divine gift already formed, for she must work at it, nurture it, and in the end, it makes her a threat to even the most powerful of the gods. This is an extraordinary read, displaying the power of hope and resilience amid periods of loneliness and darkness. In these isolating times, Circe is able to inspire us to remain hopeful and persevere.
2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Greek myths are just as much about love as they are about war. Paris and Helen, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Apollo and Hyacinth, all of these partnerships are great tales of love. Yet, Achilles and Patroclus? Making an enraged warrior guilty of butchering countless souls, a lover? Miller has done it, and she has done it well. This novel is not told from Achillies’ point of view, but Patroclus, his friend and lover. Achilles, exiled to the court of Patroclus’s family, slowly falls in love with him. Miller’s language is beautifully poetic and descriptive, painting a vivid picture of the greatest war stories in classic literature into a tale of human emotion and sacrifice. We all know the story; we all know how it ends. Yet reading The Song of Achilles is like experiencing and feeling it all for the first time.. The heart-wrenching side to loving someone so deeply is laid bare in the pages of Miller’s novel. Miller undertook extensive research when writing and constructing this book, it taking her ten years to finish, thus leading to phenomenal character development and worldbuilding.
3. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War from the point of view of Briseis, a trojan woman awarded to Achilles after his army infiltrates Troy’s walls. This is deemed the feminist telling of ‘The Iliad’. Along with Briseis, we have the voice of Andromache, the wife of the Trojan prince Hector, awarded to Achilles’s son after he is killed by Achilles. Baker’s novel stays true to Homer’s traditional structure, with astounding characterisation of Briseis, Andromache Euripides, and Hecuba. Leaving no stone unturned, she transforms the heroic tale of men into the heart-wrenching tale of widowed, abused and enslaved women, who watch their beloved home turn to ash. Through Briseis’s eyes we see glimpses of Achilles and his ways, evoking him as a figure of beauty and brutality. He is both a figure of a warrior, as well as a boy who yearns to love and be loved in return. Barker’s novel evokes a strong message on the hardships facing women, proving that the term ‘hero’ does not belong solely to men anymore.
4. Folk by Zoe Gilbert
We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we are all guilty of it. Folk by Zoe Gilbert has to be one of my favourite covers. Just take a second to appreciate the beauty. The cover already alludes to what you find within its pages. Beauty, vibrancy and nature. Filled with a deep history, Folk is both a novel and an array of short stories, all entwined and set in the world of “Neverness”. Worldly traditions and familiar myths are interwoven to expose the very foundations of human nature, specifically its weaknesses. Gilbert evokes the magic that lies within nature and archaeology, shifting to its hauntings. The novel has tales of sacrifice and rituals, in stories such as ‘Prick Song’ and ‘Water Bull Bride’ it delves into the primal side of desire, greed and the vibrant imaginations of storytellers. What’s so powerful about this novel is that it doesn’t stray too far into fantasy, deeming the stories somewhat believable. The astounding worldbuilding and poetic descriptions are inspired with Gilbert’s love for the Isle of Man, with inspiration from Celtic myths.
5. Foxfire, Wolfskin by Sharon Blackie
Linking to the short story structure that was present in Folk, Foxfire, Wolfskin is a collection of stories praising and celebrating our relationship to the natural and spiritual world. Blackie’s enchanting collection is a feminist retelling of folktales found across Europe, with strong linking to Nordic folklore and Celtic myth. The stories deal specifically with shape-shifting women, exploring their wildness and reconnecting with nature. It’s both haunting and inspiring, I will never stop recommending this book because of just how powerful the messages are within it. It is proof of just how important myths still are and will always be. Blackie reminds us of our broken connection to the world around us, as well as the spirit within us. In times such as these, re-reading mythology reminds us of the bigger picture.
Words by Molly Holborn
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