More than villains, victims and wives, Ellen Ruddell examines retellings of the female myth.
Firmly cemented as the powerhouses of modern Greek myth retellings, Madeline Miller, author of the tremendously successful Circe and The Song of Achilles and Jennifer Saint, author of Ariadne continue to ride the cultural wave, tridents in hand.
Despite ostensibly being stories long-exhausted by cultural familiarity, our appetite for these literally ancient stories, reframed with modern ideals, and feminist slant is seemingly insatiable. Rather than plots of glory and male domination parading as heroism, Miller, Saint, and a multitude of other talented female voices – including Natalie Hynes (A Thousand Ships, Stone Blind), and Pat Barker (The Silence of The Girls) – centre marginalised and culturally suppressed perspectives previously overlooked, victimised, or demonised by pop-culture mythology.
The familiar image of Medusa, a monster with a screaming head of snakes, a sexual object to and victim of Poseidon and Athena’s godly whims, forms an uneasy contrast with the dignified strength of Perseus, her killer’s cunning. Women throughout mythology inhabit this role of abused villains, frequent victims of violence and sexual assault, or at best, the left-behind wives of heroes.
Our generation, however, grew up clutching Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, which are full of good, diverse representation, depicting teenagers with learning difficulties, and a range of queer and non-white identities. The main heroine, Annabeth’s, likeable coolness paved the way for a wealth of young readers growing up yearning for more stories featuring girls like themselves, exhibiting just as much bravery, intelligence and adventurousness as their male counterparts, a niche distinctly lacking in our mainstream narratives of mythology.
Hence it’s no mystery why, as demand soars for novels written by and about young women navigating the tumultuousness of late-teenagerhood and young adulthood, more and more readers are clamouring for modern takes on classic stories of adventure, monstrosity and heroism, albeit with a more critical perception of who exactly the monsters are.
The international fortitude of the #MeToo and “I believe her” movements, supporting and crediting women’s stories can extend backwards through time, lends a lifeline to the forgotten female victims, such as Circe, Ariadne, Elektra, and Persephone. These stories are inherently great fun, with superbly dramatic twists, betrayals and feats of superhuman strength – without the discomfort of readers seeing themselves portrayed as “evil”, and mercilessly abused and killed.
The popularity of these novels is obvious on social media, as The Song of Achilles, Miller’s retelling of Achilles and Patroclus as a devastating young-adult romance, became synonymous with Booktok, which anxiously awaits her newest announcement of a retelling of Persephone. This corresponds to a broader rise in the cultural awareness of mythology and Paganism, as videos of crystals and altar-tours dedicated to Greek and Roman deities dominated TikTok during lockdown. As we return to old favourites of stories we’ve grown up with, these novels allow for a reappraisal of the cultural ideals and tropes they enshrine, offering freshness and further nuance into well-worn stories, keeping true to the original myths, whilst expanding them into the modern sphere.
Although the genre is becoming oversaturated with Trojan retellings, I hope that Madeline Miller’s Persephone project reflects a broader movement towards a wider range of myth sources, and I’d love to see smaller and more-forgotten female stories retold.
A Very Brief Recommendation List:
Madeline Miller’s Circe: My personal favourite, and a perfect introduction to the genre. Circe traces The Odyssey, from the perspective of the witch Circe, charting her rise to magic, her banishment, and meeting Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, and the Minotaur.
Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, started early with this 2005 novella loosely following the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. It’s more true to traditional myth-form than other modern retellings, featuring a Chorus and some lyrical styling, and generally does really well as an interrogation into male narratives of mythology, and depiction of female ruthlessness, usually attributed to Agamemnon’s murderous wife, Clymnestra.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Also retells the Trojan War from a female perspective, centring Penelope, the frustratingly disbelieved Cassandra, and best of all Helen of Troy, pushing back against her image of a beautiful war-trophy in mainstream mythology. One of the strongest Trojan War retellings, for its breadth and its women’s reclaimed agency.
Delphi by Claire Pollard: A different take to the typical retellings. Centres a (very) modern classicist as she negotiates her research into different forms of prophecy, whilst navigating life as a mother and wife during Covid. Her narrative is poignant and funny, and the academia threaded into it works really well.
Jennifer Saint’s Elektra: New in 2022, reimagines the Trojan war from the triadic perspectives of Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister and Agamemnon’s wife; Cassandra, whose prophecies are tainted by her curse to never be believed; and Elektra, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s daughter, the origin of the ‘Elektra complex’.