Yassas friends, and welcome to a blog I have been thinking over for some time now. Over the last year there has been a dramatic rise in the amount of retellings I have been reading, fairytales reimagined, Shakespeare transported to the current day, Norse myth awoken again by Gaiman, but what really has captured me and took many of my reading hours is those stories looking at the Greek Gods.
Yesterday I arrived back in the UK from Crete, the land where Zeus grew and developed his strength to take on the Titans and also the home of the Minotaur. I was accompanied by my seven year old nephew, a serious Hercules fan (Disney making sure an interest in antiquity starts young!) Jack, said nephew, has had me seriously brushing up my Titan/God knowledge as at any moment I’m fired with questions like ‘which of his children did Zeus love the most?’, ‘how can they NEVER die?’ and ‘who put the glad in gladiator?’
I’m also just about to start reading yet another retelling this evening, which I’ll mention later, so I really thought it was time I talked about all the great books that are out there if you too have had your interest piqued by those living up on Mount Olympus.
So, where to begin? I think the most sensible place to start would be with my first official Greek myth purchase, from an author who many consider to be The Chosen One when it comes to reading about the immortals, Robert Graves. I collect the Penguin Deluxe Series so wanted this on my shelf both for topic and the smug satisfaction of seeing my series grow (not so smug now, these books are expensive and the ‘collection’ looks more like a small, happy coincidence) This is DENSE, both physically and in its reading, but if you want each Gods story as close to its ‘true’ form, then this is where you’re going to get it (although classicists will debate this, I think to a layman who simply wants the pleasure of the story this stands true) After each tale Graves expands on what we’ve read and his passion and commitment to a topic he clearly loved certainly is never in doubt.
Now for the book that really stoked my passion, and I imagine did so for many others after rightly winning the then Orange Prize for fiction, the glorious ‘Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller. Heavens if I could write one sentence in a lifetime as beautiful as any found in this book I’d be happy. It is utter perfection. Miller focuses on Achilles and the love affair he is often thought to have had with Patroclus, a minor character who creeps up often when Achilles is mentioned, but whose potential impact is much bigger and warrants more page space than that previously given to him. Miller made these characters so real to me my heart ached and it felt as powerful as an encounter with Gods should. I’m jealous of those of you who get to read it for the first time.
Next up is my beloved Colm Toibin. Now I will read anything Toibin publishes, I adore his prose and think he writes women beautifully (you’d think a good author could write men and women well with them all being, well, human after all but…*stares at you Murakami*) but I have to admit I was surprised when ‘House of Names’ came along and I found it was the retelling of a myth, it was not what I had expected from him, but then the magic of Toibin is you know you’re in good hands no matter where he’s going to take you. Used to his quiet Irish villages with women who keep their problems pushed down under a veil of conformity? Get ready for Clytemnestra to come smashing through your expectations and thrill you with vengeance and, well, some gore too! Her wait for Agamemnon to return home after his sacrificing their daughter for a few gusts of wind is tense to say the least, and his times in Troy will have little to compare to the wrath that awaits and the judgement of his surviving two children, Electra and Orestes. This book crackles throughout with energy, reminding you dabbling with those Greeks is a dangerous business!
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie is another impressive retelling, this time of Antigone. Unlike the previous books this is set in modern times and cleverly uses the original plot to form a study on family, identity and religion when three siblings are put under strain due to a massive culture clash. The plot takes us from London, to Syria, to New York, to Iraq and despite its origins coming from around 440 BC, this novel feels entirely relevant.
I’m bringing out another big gun here, prepare for some Margaret Atwood please! ‘The Penelopiad’ is a slim little read but don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s not to be reckoned with. The pesky Battle of Troy raises its head again and Odysseus, as has been well documented, disappeared for a mere ten years afterwards, but what was it like for his wife Penelope back home? Atwood brings the chorus line to life, as it is made up of the famous twelve maids, in a way that brought goosebumps to my skin. I listened to the audiobook and the chanting of their sorrows and curses are the stuff of nightmares.
If Robert Graves seems a little intimidating to you then I highly recommend ‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry. Equally as chunky of a tome but more accessible and this had me frequently laughing as Fry brings his own je n’ais se quoi to the telling. Again I listened to this on audiobook and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. The pleasure is in the story telling here, no assessment of the myth or scholarly inquiry, just perfect escapism if you want to listen to the delinquent behaviour of the Gods.
We will finish in not quite a full circle, but a somewhat wonky one with Madeline Miller again (so good we featured her twice) ‘Circe’ arrived in its golden glory this year, oh that gold leafed cover, those end papers, the embossing on the hardback under the dust jacket – be still my beating heart as I stare upon this book lovers dream. Naturally the pressure was on with all clambering to compare this to ‘Song of Achilles’, but these are two very different books to me. For starters Circe, for me certainly, is a lesser known God, so I felt like I did not have that built in tension that I did on beginning Achilles story. Always a bit player in the Odyssey, Miller has breathed life into a God I now find one of the most fascinating. Her battles with her position in life, what it affords her, what she rebels against and the consequences of this are beautifully told and the story is paced so well, never lagging, Miller unfolds the real depths of this character. It didn’t have the same burning intensity for me that I had on first reading ‘Song of Achilles’, but I think I was so swept up on the passion, ‘Circe’ has stayed with me though and has grew into a deep, unshifting love. If I am to point any reader to a Greek myth retelling I will always say Millers name first.
My list of Greek myth doth keep on growing however, and as it seems to be a real trend at the moment I can’t see it slowing down any time soon. So if you enjoyed reading about the above and would like another catch up in the future just let me know in the comments below!
I do want to do a shout out while I’m here. I’m an avid watcher of some very good booktubers, one of whom being Jean from ‘Bookish Thoughts’ on YouTube, you can find her by clicking here , and she has definitely encouraged my reading of Greek Myth. She is studying for her PhD currently and her passion for antiquity shines through every video she makes, I really recommend a watch if you is want to hear somebody talk who is infinitely more qualified than me!
Have you read any retellings? Are you tempted too? And what book is on your bedside table at the moment? As usual chat below and here comes the business bit…
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and until next time all..