Photo: Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A Guide to Mythological Retellings
By Maggie Yuan
Since the advent of Booktok a few years ago, mythology-inspired novels have increased in popularity. Perhaps the most notable is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which has taken the literary world by storm, despite being released over a decade ago. With its gorgeous prose, passionate depiction of love, and familiar storyline, it is no wonder that the timeless tale of Achilles and Patroclus has grown so popular. The Song of Achilles is hardly the first adaptation of Greco-Roman myth to gain cult status. Childhood fans of Percy Jackson and the Olympians patiently bided their time until it was socially acceptable to return to the world of mythology.
As mythological books grow in acclaim, one has to wonder where this resurgence in popularity comes from. Some believe that as classics becomes a more contested discipline, the literary world will lose interest in these stories. Classical mythology, however, possesses a kind of universality that speaks to every person. The fact that the Greco-Roman gods are flawed beings allows us to simultaneously relate to them while still leaving a measure of distance. We can appreciate their wild antics without feeling too close to their ancient legacy. Much like our modern superheroes, the gods have a fallible nature that only adds to their appeal. However, what makes the gods all the more interesting is that they play the dual role of hero and villain, depending on the myth. Athena may be the protector of Athens, but her rage also created the monster Medusa. Zeus may be the powerful king of the heavens, but his adulterous tendencies make it difficult for us to sympathize with his actions. Even as the legacy of classics grows more contentious, mythological retellings provide a platform for creators to shift the direction of the discipline for the better. From amplifying the female perspective of mythological figures to rewriting the narrative to include diverse characters, mythological retellings allow writers to take creative liberties with ancient Western material and make it accessible to the general public.
Whether you’re eager to learn more about Greco-Roman mythology or are simply in search of a new and interesting read, below I have compiled a list of books steeped in mythological influences.
Greek mythology often has a reputation for being, at its core, misogynistic and patriarchal. However, in the modern age, female authors have rewritten the narrative to include Greek and Roman women’s voices that were once lost to time.
- Circe by Madeline Miller
- Summary: A daughter is born to Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she possesses power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
- My take: Probably one of my favorite books ever, I think it’s a perfect introduction to the world of mythological retellings. It’s amazing how Miller takes Circe, a side character in so many mythological stories but never the protagonist of her own, and makes her the main character. You can see all the original stories, but the perspective is switched and the prose is so lyrical that it feels like a completely new story.
- Other Madeline Miller books: Galatea
- Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
- Summary: Ariadne, Princess of Crete, grows up greeting the dawn from her beautiful dancing floor and listening to her nursemaid’s myths. But beneath her golden palace echo the ever-present hoofbeats of her brother, the Minotaur, a monster who demands blood sacrifice. When Theseus, the Prince of Athens, arrives to vanquish the beast, Ariadne sees in his green eyes not a threat but an escape. Defying the gods, betraying her family and country, and risking everything for love, Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur. But will Ariadne’s decision ensure her happy ending? And what of Phaedra, the beloved younger sister she leaves behind?
- The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
- Summary: The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege by the powerful Greek army, which wages bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive. Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and familiar stories from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with revelations. Barker’s latest novel builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individuals—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
- Sequel: The Women of Troy
- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
- Summary: From Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War, Penelope manages, in the face of rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids. In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to make Penelope and her twelve hanged maids the narrators, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, Atwood gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
- Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Summary: In the Aeneid, Virgil’s hero Aeneas fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills. Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom until suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. When a Trojan fleet sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Virgil did not: the story of her life and the love of her life.
Sometimes, the original stories are enough to keep you entertained and coming back time and time again. Though Hesiod and Ovid are brilliant at compiling and retelling the myths, it may take a modern perspective to create a compelling narrative for familiar stories.
- Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry
- Summary: Mythos is a modern collection of Greek myths, stylishly retold by legendary writer, actor, and comedian Stephen Fry. Fry transforms the adventures of Zeus and the Olympians into emotionally resonant and deeply funny stories, without losing any of their original wonder. This stunning book features classical artwork inspired by the myths, as well as learned notes from the author. Each adventure is infused with Fry’s distinctive wit, voice, and writing style. Connoisseurs of the Greek myths will appreciate this fresh-yet-reverential interpretation, while newcomers will feel welcome. Retellings brim with humor and emotion and offer rich cultural context.
- Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins
- Summary: Here are myths of the creation, of Heracles and Theseus and Perseus, the Trojan war and its origins and aftermaths, tales of Thebes and Argos and Athens. There are stories of love and desire, adventure and magic, destructive gods, helpless humans, fantastical creatures, resourceful witches, and the origins of birds and animals. This is a world of extremes and one that resonates deeply with our own: mysterious diseases devastate cities; environmental disasters tear lives apart; women habitually suffer violence at the hands of men. Unlike many previous collected myths, female characters take center stage — Athena, Helen, Circe, Penelope, and others weave these stories into elaborate imagined tapestries. In Charlotte Higgins’s thrilling new interpretation, their tales combine to form a dazzling, sweeping epic of storytelling, and a magnificent work of scholarship and imagination.
- Beneath the Moon: Fairytales, Myths, and Divine Stories from Around the World by Yoshi Yoshitani
- Summary: Many of the lessons we learn are shared stories passed among cultures and generations. In this riveting collection of fables and folktales from cultures across the globe, characters from beloved fairytales, cultural fables, and ancient mythologies are brought to life, including Sleeping Beauty (Italy), Rapunzel (Germany), Jack and the Beanstalk (England), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Sun God Ra (Egypt), the Crane Wife (Japan), and dozens more. Lesser-known stories introduce characters such as the volcano goddess Pele from Hawaii; Mwindo, the wise and powerful king of the Nyanga people; and the strong and resilient Yennenga, mother of the Mossi people in Burkina Faso. The themes of conquering evil, overcoming adversity, and finding love and companionship are woven throughout this collection.
- My take: I loved how diverse this anthology was! It included myths from all across the globe, not only listing the country of origin, but also the people from which the myth came. The insanely gorgeous art inside is a plus as well.
Greek and Roman mythology currently dominates the market, but there are many other brilliant mythologies from a variety of cultures out there. Even among other Western societies, there are different traditions and stories to draw from. From the stories of the Chinese Chang-e to the Norse Loki, these brilliant retellings provide a dose of much-needed diversity to the current trends. Here, I have only included a small selection of the thousands of mythology-based books currently out there in the hopes that you can discover a new favorite myth!
- Sistersong by Lucy Holland (Celtic mythology)
- Summary: In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, there is old magic to be found in the whisper of the wind, the roots of the trees, and the curl of the grass. King Cador knew this once, but now the land has turned from him, calling instead to his three children. Riva can cure others, but can’t seem to heal her own deep scars. Keyne battles to be accepted for who he truly is—the king’s son. And Sinne dreams of seeing the world. All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change arrives the day that ash falls from the sky. It brings with it the meddlesome magician Myrdhin and Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear the children apart.Riva, Keyne, and Sinne are three siblings entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak who must fight to forge their own paths. Their story will shape the destiny of Britain.
- The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec (Norse mythology)
- Summary: Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. As a punishment from Odin for refusing to foretell the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love. Their union produces three unusual children, each with a secret destiny, who Angrboda is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life—and possibly all of existence—is in danger. With help from the fierce huntress Skadi, with whom she develops a strong bond, Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family…or rise to remake their future.
- The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (Middle Eastern mythology)
- Summary: In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night, he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad’s dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive but to end the caliph’s reign of terror once and for all. Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving enchanting stories that ensure her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like what she’d imagined. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid’s life as retribution for the many lives he’s stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?
- My take: I read this book well over 5 years ago, and it still remains high on my list of favorite books. It’s the perfect mix between drawing inspiration from 1001 Nights and introducing new storylines.
- Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan (Chinese mythology)
- Summary: Growing up on the moon, Xingyin is accustomed to solitude and unaware that she is being hidden from the feared Celestial Emperor who exiled her mother for stealing his elixir of immortality. But when Xingyin’s magic flares, her existence is discovered, and she is forced to leave her mother and her home behind. Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity, she seizes an opportunity to learn archery and magic alongside the emperor’s son, even as passion flames between her and the prince. To save her mother, Xingyin embarks on a perilous quest, confronting legendary creatures and vicious enemies across the earth and skies. But when forbidden magic threatens the kingdom, she must challenge the ruthless Celestial Emperor for her dream—striking a dangerous bargain in which she is torn between losing all she loves or plunging the realm into chaos.
Reinterpretations/Takes Inspiration From
Sometimes, a seed of inspiration is all an author needs to create an idea that is entirely their own. These books, though thematically based on Mediterranean mythology, take enough creative liberties that they can’t be considered retellings in the stricter sense.
- Daughter of Sparta by Claire M. Andrews
- Summary: Seventeen-year-old Daphne has spent her entire life honing her body and mind to that of a warrior, hoping to be accepted by the unyielding Spartans. But an unexpected encounter with the goddess Artemis—who holds Daphne’s brother’s fate in her hands—upends the life she’s worked so hard to build. Nine mysterious items have been stolen from Mount Olympus, and if Daphne cannot find them, the gods’ waning powers will fade, the mortal world will descend into chaos, and her brother’s life will be lost. Guided by Artemis’s twin—the handsome and entirely-too-self-assured god Apollo—Daphne’s journey takes her from the labyrinth of the Minotaur to the riddle-spinning Sphinx of Thebes, teaming her up with mythological legends such as Theseus and Hippolyta of the Amazons and pitting her against the gods themselves. A reinterpretation of the classic Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, Daughter of Sparta by debut author Claire M. Andrews turns the traditionally male-dominated mythology we know into a heart-pounding and empowering female-led adventure.
- Oreo by Fran Ross and Harryette Mullen
- Summary: One of a few works of satire written by African American women, Oreo is an uproariously funny novel about relations between African Americans and Jews. It is as fresh and outrageous today as when it was first published in 1974.
- Born to a Jewish father and black mother, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical group. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York to search for her father, but in the big city, she discovers that there are dozens of Sam Schwartzes. Oreo’s mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest, reminiscent of the ancient Greek myth of Theseus. This is an ambitious and playful narrative that challenges not only the accepted notions of race, ethnicity, and identity but also those of the novelistic form itself.
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Summary: Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls, an ocean is imprisoned: waves thunder up staircases and rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.
- There is another person in the house—a man called The Other who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of a third person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.
- My take: With its labyrinth setting and whimsical prose, this book can only be described as ‘trippy.’ Though the mythological references aren’t explicit, there is an inherent classical atmosphere to the book. In particular, I loved the unpredictable mystery aspect of Piranesi.
- A Touch of Darkness by Scarlett St. Clair
- Summary: Persephone is the Goddess of Spring by title only. The truth is, since she was a little girl, flowers have shriveled at her touch. After moving to New Athens, she hopes to lead an unassuming life disguised as a mortal journalist. Meanwhile, Hades, God of the Dead, has built a gambling empire in the mortal world and his favorite bets are rumored to be impossible.
Though an entire article could be devoted to the various other mediums of mythological retellings, from movies to comic books, here I have included only a few.
- Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe (comic)
- Summary: Experience the propulsive love story of two Greek gods—Hades and Persephone—brought to life with lavish artwork and an irresistible contemporary voice.
- Scandalous gossip, wild parties, and forbidden love—witness what the gods do after dark in this stylish, contemporary reimagining of one of mythology’s most well-known stories: Hades and Persephone.
- My take: Aside from the uniquely vibrant art style, I was very impressed by how the comic managed to spin the ancient myth in a modern style. It deals with many heavy topics, but I think it also starts a respectful conversation.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma (movie)
- Summary: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman. Loosely based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, this movie adds a queer perspective to the classic myth.
- My take: This is one of those films where it seems like every frame should hang in a museum. Each scene has gorgeous visuals and the characters’ desires are on full display. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is artfully placed into the film to serve as a parallel to the experience of the main characters.
The act of “looking back” is one of the hallmarks of understanding mythology. Without the analysis of past stories from a modern perspective, myths would lose certain aspects of their meaning. The Song of Achilles, though a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, may soon be considered a classic novel in its own right. Miller’s account provides a new dynamic to the old texts, shifting the focus from the Trojan War to the contentious relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Just like many other authors on this list, Miller looks at one aspect of a mythological text through a new lens, and she creates entirely new avenues for future exploration. Hopefully, with this list of mythological retellings, you will feel the urge to do more exploration of your own!