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Bibliography of Classical Mythology (September 2023): Contemporary Novels Based on Mythology

By Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman

Contemporary Novels Based on Mythology

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw the publication of mythically based novels from two renowned authors, Margaret Atwood and the late Ursula Le Guin. Atwood’s Penelopiad is a feminist retelling of the much-loved story of the woes of patient Penelope. In this retelling Atwood focuses on the violence women faced in antiquity and how accepted it was. Commenting throughout the novel as a sort of tragic chorus are Penelope’s twelve serving maids, who were brutally killed by Telemachus in the Odyssey. Ursula Le Guin is famous for creating alternate worlds in tales of fantasy, and she brought that talent to bear in Lavinia, a beautiful novel based on Aeneas’s chosen bride in the Aeneid. Le Guin takes Virgil’s rather silent character and makes a hero of her. Most ingenious in this mash-up of fantasy and mythology is Lavinia’s meeting with Virgil, as a sort of deity who will guide her.

Several women writers have taken the story of Troy and its aftermath as a basis for works of fiction loosely based on the source material and often written with a feminist slant. Classicist Madeline Miller’s first popular novel, Song of Achilles, tells of the romantic and sexual love between Achilles and his war companion Patroclus, a liaison that does not appear in the Iliad itself. Miller turns Patroclus into the protagonist, making him the narrator of the story of his early years with Achilles and his and Achilles’s experiences in the Trojan War. Miller’s second award-winning novel, Circe, is a modern retelling of the Odyssey. Circe is in essence a fictional weaving together of many myths involving Circe, who is an important but not central character in the Odyssey. Similarly, in The Silence of the Girls Pat Barker gives Briseis, a minor character in the Iliad, a powerful narrative voice of her own. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is also based on the Troy story before and after the fall of the city. In this subversive retelling of the Iliad she highlights the human costs of war, especially with regard to women. Haynes has other fictional reimaginings to her credit: The Children of Jocasta, which predates A Thousand Ships and tells the story of Oedipus, and Stone Blind, a more recent novel, which mixes humor and pathos in a retelling of the Perseus story from the point of view of Medusa, the victim of Poseidon’s lust and Perseus’s violence.

Works Cited