Readers, I had the best bookish day yesterday. I attended a conference workshop about adapting mythology with THE Madeline Miller. I fell madly in love with Madeline’s writing when I discovered The Song of Achilles six years ago. When I was lucky enough to get an early copy of her sophomore novel, Circe, it became my favorite book of 2018. This year I’ll be teaching Circe for the first time so I was extra excited to learn that she was presenting at the National Council for Teachers of English convention. What made this workshop even more magical was that Madeline (I call her Madeline now) was joined by Gareth Hinds, the graphic artist behind the adaptations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and David Elliott, author of the Minotaur adaptation Bull and the Joan of Arc story, Voices. I haven’t yet read either Gareth’s or David’s works, but I can’t wait to pick up their books.
I’ve always adored mythological adaptations so it was incredible to see all of these genius authors discuss the art of adapting myths and legends. One of the points Madeline made that really hit me was that there is no such thing as The Story when it comes to myth. As she put it, there’s not the version; there’s Homer’s version, and Virgil’s version, and Joyce’s version, and Atwood’s version. So myth in and of itself is always a work of adaptation. It really struck me that this is why mythological retellings are often so beautiful and so natural. Based on these ideas, here are my Five Favorite retellings of myths and legends. These are the retellings that have taught me something new, not just about myths, but about what it means to be human.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I read this book in high school and found Lewis’ retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth to be knock-me-down stunning. Narrated by Psyche’s sister, Orual, Till We Have Faces is simultaneously more beautiful and more brutal than any other version of this myth that I have read. Orual loves and cares for Psyche, but these sisters have polarized perspectives on what makes for a good and ethical life. Orual is defiantly logical and cannot accept Psyche’s profound experience of the gods. This complicated story about doubt, faith, and sisterhood allows Lewis to explore different forms of love and different types of faith. The result is a novel that challenges any single lensed view of the world.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. This one is a favorite for two main reasons. First, I love Atwood’s Penelope. She’s creative, cutting, and funny. She doesn’t just have agency, she has power and personality. Atwood’s Penelope has a voice that feels determinedly rooted in Homer’s text, yet simultaneously fresh and modern. The other aspect of this novel that I completely adore is the structure. Atwood breaks the action of the story with a chorus made up of the twelve handmaids Odysseus slaughtered upon his return. This choice not only gives the novel the rhythm of a classic novel, it enhances the theme of reclaiming women’s voices.
Circe by Madeline Miller. Myths endure because in the midst of all the gods and monsters, these stories are truly human stories. For me, Madeline Miller’s Circe is the very embodiment of this is because although Circe is a goddess, she resonates all of the beauty and agony of being human. and gives voice to a completely misremembered literary figure. In her NCTE presentation, Miller encouraged teachers and readers to constantly consider whose stories get told and whose voices get heard, particularly in mythology. By questioning these conventions and filling in the gaps, Miller manages to tell stories that are just as timeless and essential as her source material. (note: I agonized over whether to include Song of Achilles or Circe on this list so please just read them both.)
The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. I will be forever grateful to the friend who introduced me to this collection. I have read it countless times and I’ve used Duffy’s poetry in many different classes. I loved mythology growing up—which is probably obvious here—but I struggled with the binary of women being presented as either submissive or evil. Duffy’s poetry works through exactly this by writing into the gaps. Each of her poems takes a woman from mythology, legend, or history and reimagines the story by giving her a voice. There are beautifully earnest and vulnerable poems that retell the stories of Medusa, Penelope, Eurydice, as well as wonderfully irreverent poems like the four line “Mrs. Icarus.” Duffy is a fantastic wordsmith and storyteller, and I love how she’s able to alter her voice and tone for each poem while constructing a collection that functions as a cohesive whole.
Naamah by Sarah Blake. I suppose whether you consider this a mythological retelling is dependent on your personal worldview, but oh my goodness is this book amazing. Told from the perspective of Noah’s wife, Naamah is a weird and wonderful exploration of grief and forgiveness. It’s imaginative and heartrending, and if you want to read all of my glowing and gushing thoughts on Naamah, be sure to read my Best Books of 2019 (So Far) post.