Readers, I had the best bookish day today. 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. It also shows me just how human these stories of gods and monsters are. 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 brutal and more brutal than any other version of this myth that I have read. Orual loves and cares for Psyche, but Orual is defiantly logical and cannot accept Psyche’s profound experience of the gods. This narrative allows Lewis to explore different forms of love and different types of faith.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
This one is a favorite for two main reasons. First, I love Atwood’s Penelope. She’s cutting and funny. She doesn’t just have agency, she has power and personality. Her voice feels precisely like Homer describes her and 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. I appreciate the way Atwood gives these women a voice as well.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I agonized over whether to include Song of Achilles or Circe on this list so please know that I adore them both. What I love so much about Circe in particular, is Miller writes with such creativity about the beauty and the agony of being human, and gives voice to a completely misremembered literary figure. In her NCTE presentation, Miller encouraged teachers to constantly consider whose stories get told and whose voices get heard 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.
The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
Only approximately half of the poems in this collection are retellings of myths, but these poems are so ingenious that the whole collection is making the list. Each of Duffy’s poems takes a woman from mythology, legend, or history and reimaginings the story of her life from her perspective. 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 such 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. For all my teachers out there, this is a great collection to pull from for poetry or mythology units!
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,gushing thoughts on Naamah, be sure to read my Best Books of 2019 (So Far) post.