9 Mythic Retellings That Will Give You A Whole New Perspective On These Ancient Stories
You've probably heard of Madeline Miller's Circe, or perhaps you have even read it already. You already know that it's no easy business, being a god. Or a witch. Or a monster. In one of the most celebrated books of 2018, Miller manages to take a whole mess of ancient Greek myths and weave them into a single, brilliant, page turner of a novel; a sweeping epic that explores everything from womanhood to lion-keeping to immortality. It's great.
If you're hungry for more brilliantly re-imagined ancient myths. Well, fear not! There are actually quite a few contemporary novels that re-tell tales from the ancients. There are even a few that venture beyond Greek mythology (shocking, I know) and touch on some of the other mythologies that humankind has to offer. So if you're looking for your next mythic adventure, check out one of these excellent retellings.
Mythology and folklore are full of strange characters and bizarre circumstances, grand journeys and revenge plots gone horribly wrong. It all makes for pretty great reading. But mythology also tends to be a little light on the character development, and that's where retellings come in: these books tell the stories that the original myths skimped out on. They place these legends in new times and places. And, most of all, they find new, inventive ways to tell the stories we love:
'The Song of Achilles' by Madeline Miller
Long before The Iliad, before Homer even picked up a pen, there was an awkward youth named Patroclus. Exiled to the court of King Peleus, the disgraced young prince finds himself forging an unlikely friendship with the perfect, athletic Achilles. Over the years, their friendship starts to evolve into something deeper—until Achilles is called to war, and Patroclus has no choice but to follow. Much like with Circe, Miller beautifully re-imagines a Greek classic into a poignant, sweeping romance.
'The Wrath and the Dawn' by Renee Ahdieh
Khalid is the 18-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, and he has an unusual love life: each night he takes a new bride, and each morning he strangles her. And when Shahrzad loses her best friend to Khalid's monstrous "marriage," she vows to have revenge. She will be his next bride, and she will end his reign of terror. But, if you know your Middle Eastern folk tales, you know that things get a tad more complicated as Shahrzad finds herself spinning stories to save her life... and maybe even falling in love with the man she aims to destroy.
'Norse Mythology' by Neil Gaiman
Norse Mythology is (unsurprisingly) a retelling of the myths of Northern Europe. But Neil Gaiman brings his signature wit and weirdness to the classic tales of Odin, Thor, and Loki. The stories read like a fantasy novel, from the bizarre creation of the Norse gods (which involved a cow) to the grisly end times of Ragnarok.
'The Mere Wife' by Maria Dahvana Headley
The Mere Wife takes the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and sets it (naturally) in a modern gated community. Willa lives in Herot Hall, where life is charming, if a little slow. She spends her days with her son in mommy groups and her nights attending dinner parties. But beyond the walls of Herot Hall, a woman named Dana lives in the mountain caves with her own son, Gren. And when Gren attempts to breach the gates of Herot Hall, Dana and Willa will find their very different lives impossibly entangled.
'Ramayana' by Daljit Nagra
Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic poem, telling of the divine prince Rama and his quest to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana. There are many, many different versions of the story from all across ancient Asia, and Daljit Nagra has decided to use almost all of them for this vibrant, multi-cultural, wildly eclectic take on the classic adventure. This Ramayana mixes verse with modern slang and experimental layouts for a truly original mythic retelling.
'Don't Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New' edited by Christine Thomas
Look, we all love a good mythic novel, but myths do tend to start out as short stories. In Don't Look Back, a number of Hawaii's best authors offer their reinterpretations of Hawaiian myths, exploring these ancient stories through literary fiction, poetry, sci-fi, and romance. There are talking lava rocks, bird men, moon goddesses, and more than one story of "superhero" Māui.
'Redemption in Indigo' by Karen Lord
In this retelling of a Senegalese folk tale, a women named Paama has finally decided to leave her husband. He's followed her to her parents' home village, only to murder the livestock and steal the corn. He's humiliated her for the last time. But in leaving, Paama attracts the attention of an undying djombi, who gifts her a mysterious item called the Chaos Stick, which soon puts her at the center of a wild, semi-divine fight for power.
'Lavinia' by Ursula K. Le Guin
Everyone likes to lump together the Greeks and the Romans. And it's true that the Romans did "borrow" quite a bit of their mythology from their frenemies to the east. But they also came up with the totally original (and not at all stolen) Aeneid, a sort of... sequel to The Iliad that tells of the founding of Rome. Ursula K. Le Guin takes us to the wild hills of ancient Italy, where a young girl named Lavinia comes of age, grappling with her prophesied destiny to bring war and destruction to her homeland... and her love for a foreign stranger.
'The King Must Die' by Mary Renault
I mean, really, we shouldn't be talking about modern takes on mythology without talking about Mary Renault. The King Must Die is one of her best loved retellings, giving us a new (and much steamier) spin on the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Was it actually a bull-headed monster at the center of that labyrinth? Or was the truth of the matter even stranger?