Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus myth
Achilles lamenting the death of Patroclus

The rise of mythical retelling

At age 9 or 10, searching for something to read, I asked my sister’s advice (she was four-and-a-half years older and wiser). She duly handed me an unwanted book that she had bought at a car boot sale. Initially, I was underwhelmed by the battered cover of Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief. But from the first page, I quickly became enamoured with Percy’s sarcastic narration. I tore through the book and then, in the years that followed, everything the author Rick Riordan had ever written, hyper-fixating on his reinventions of Greek mythology, then Roman, Norse and Egyptian. Why, you might be wondering, is any of this relevant? Well, I wasn’t the only one obsessed with Riordan’s idea.

Over the past few decades, there has been what we might call an explosion in mythical retellings, the publication of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series being one of the major influences. Feminist writers have sought to question and reimagine the stories of mythical women: Circe, Pandora and so on. Works like Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (soul-crushingly sad, I’m still not over it) have explored the queer romances implied by Homer’s Iliad. Beyond Greek stories, the mythologies that other cultures have to offer are endlessly rich. Nikita Gill’s illustrated verse novel The Girl and the Goddess is a (criminally underrated) favourite of mine, spellbindingly weaving Hindu myth into a modern coming-of-age narrative. All of this points to an enduring interest in ancient legend, which, like a cornucopia, spills out endless material for readaptation.

Historical and artistic precedents

The caveat to this article’s title is, of course, that the revival of classical stories is far from exclusive to the modern era. Throughout history (obviously with some fluctuations), these stories appear as important reference points, resulting in a plethora of existing adaptations. To cite just one example, the French 17th-century dramatist Jean Racine frequently drew on classical material for his plays, from the incestuous love of Phaedra for Hippolytus, to the sacrifice of Iphigenia in the Trojan War, and the troubled fate of Andromache, wife of Hector. 

Visual art across the centuries has similarly drawn inspiration from iconic legends. You may recognise famous examples like Botticelli’s 15th-century painting The Birth of Venus, depicting the moment when Venus emerges, from her pearlescent shell, onto the shore. Striking a very different tone is Caravaggio’s graphic, frankly terrifying 16th-century depiction of the decapitated Medusa. Architecture all over the world equally acts as a physical reminder of ancient stories and those who believed in them: the Pantheon, the Parthenon, the Sphinx…

Myth medusa
Caravaggio’s Medusa

Feminist retellings

In our times, though, the fiction market (including some areas of BookTok) seems to have seen an increasing presence of mythical retellings, especially with a feminist angle. Medusa is no longer the monster of Caravaggio’s painting, but a figurehead. Hélène Cixous’ landmark feminist essay of 1974, The Laugh of the Medusa (Le Rire de la Méduse), took its title from a rethinking of her story, which sought to stray from patriarchal discourse. More recently, fictions like Jessie Burton’s Medusa and Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind have unveiled the way in which Medusa – abused by Poseidon, cursed by Athena and beheaded by Perseus – has been vilified.

Natalie Haynes is also the author of Pandora’s Jar, one of my favourite reads in 2020. In this nonfiction work, Haynes fascinatingly dissects the more or less misogynistic ways in which a number of Greek women have been represented in popular culture across time. Following the publication of the sequel Divine Might late last year, I had the joy of seeing Haynes speak – with great energy and knowledge, like a walking encyclopaedia – about her writings on mythical women at York Literary Festival. You might have caught her talk at Blackwell’s Literary Festival this term in Oxford.

Bolu Babalola’s short story anthology Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World similarly represents a number of women, privileging long-erased tales with a blend of Greek myth, ancient Middle Eastern legends and the folktales of West Africa.

Yet, while feminist retellings can be empowering, their exposure of the condition of women may be disturbing. As the title suggests, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls challenges silences around the realities of how mythical women were treated (spoiler alert: abominably) in the Trojan War. Unlike The Song of Achilles, as much as I loved it, Barker’s book does not romanticise events at all, meaning it is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I would advise anyone considering it to look up the appropriate trigger warnings. But Barker does make a poignant point:

‘What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery […] No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?’ 

Here in Oxford, the recent student theatre production of Euripides’ Trojan Women gave a similarly traumatising insight into the lives of these figures. In the atmospheric New College chapel, the dramatic, emotion-filled performance delivered by members of New College Drama Society captured the turmoil of these women, forced into slavery to the Greek men, their husbands and children slaughtered. 

Botticelli’s the birth of Venus myth
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus

Mythical lyricism

Music is another domain in which mythical references can abound. Lorde’s Helen of Troy draws on the Trojan War figure with a distinctly modern feel: ‘Everyone please make way/ For the girl who looks like she flew in from outer space, yesterday […] This whole time I’ve been playing it coy/ This city’s falling for me, just like I’m Helen of Troy.’ Meanwhile, Maisie Peter’s History of Man picks up on a similar idea: ‘The men start wars yet Troy hates Helen.’ 

I must mention Hozier, whose discography is rich in myth and folklore references. In Swan Upon Leda, he sings of Zeus’ rape of Leda in the context of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the US: ‘The gateway of the world/ Was still outside the reach of him/ Would never belong to angels/ Had never belonged to men.’

In Sunlight, he draws on that popular favourite, the Icarus myth. I can remember listening to this verse for the first time with genuine chills: ‘Strap the wing to me/ Death trap clad happily/ With wax melted, I’d meet the sea/ Under sunlight, sunlight, sunlight.’ If the muse’s love is like sunlight, then the singing admirer would willingly fall to their death in order to be close to them for a moment. Hozier, what?!

Seemingly fascinated, Hozier returns to Icarus again in I, Carrion. A pun on ‘Icarian’, a ‘carrion’ is a decaying carcass, and thus a dark reference to Icarus’ broken body. As such, Hozier sings such bleak lines as, ‘Allow the ground to find its brutal way to me’, alongside the beautiful, ‘And though I burn, how could I fall / When I am lifted by every word you say to me?’ 

My Hozier discussion is drawing to an end, I promise. I’ll just finish with the seductive Talk, in which he repurposes the mythic love of Orpheus and Eurydice: ‘I’d be the voice that urged Orpheus/ When her body was found/ I’d be the choiceless hope in grief/ That drove him underground/ I’d be the dreadful need in the devotee/ That made him turn around/ And I’d be the immediate forgiveness in Eurydice/ Imagine being loved by me.’ The recent musical Hadestown takes the same tragedy as its basis, combining this with a commentary on capitalistic forces, in an industrial underworld.

Final thoughts 

One of the randomly distinct memories I have from primary school is of becoming fixated on a version of the Theseus and the Minotaur story told to us. In 2022, I would read Jennifer Saint’s lyrical, enchanting, feminist version: Ariadne. In my first year at Oxford, studying French, the labyrinth speech in Racine’s Phèdre would be one of my favourite passages. In 2023, I would go to the Knossos labyrinth exhibition at the Ashmolean. So the question is, why do I – and we, as modern readers and storytellers – maintain this interest in mythology? 

I think it may have something to do with the vivid portrait that we are offered of intense emotion, flawed human nature, and a complex universe, in which the gods incarnate some of the most fundamental yet challenging aspects of life: love, desire, anger, war, wisdom, monstrosity, (anti-)heroism. Arguably, these are themes which remain timeless and universal. Even though, like Janus, the two-faced god, they are always multiple, never looking quite the same for each of us.