Infinite Variations on Reimagined Myths

A quirky, neglected novel

I hadn’t supposed that mythological creatures lounged about discoursing in dactylic hexameter all day. Nevertheless, numerous reconcilements were required between what I had imagined a deity, even a modern one, to be and what the flesh-and-blood deity in fact was. But even with willing and alert adjustments, there were moments of incredulous silence on my side. – Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan

There’s something about a reimagined myth.

Readers love myths, and the retold or reimagined myth has been a popular genre for thousands of years. Even in the twenty-first century, when presumably fewer readers study classical mythology, the fascination remains. Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel, Circe, has been adapted as an HBO series (not yet released). In David Malouf’s short, perfect novel, Ransom, he reimagines scenes from the Iliad, focusing on Priam’s attempt to ransom the body of his son Hector from the implacable warrior Achilles. In 1999, Canongate commissioned a series of retold myths by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and other renowned writers. The first three books in the series were published in 2005.

Why are myths so popular? We are fascinated by the volatile antics of the gods and goddesses and the struggles of heroes (half divine, half human) unfortunate enough to attract their attention. Myths help us understand human dilemmas. They showcase the implacability and arbitrariness of fate. We pore over Greek tragedies, horrified by mistakes sometimes caused by unwitting hubris, but more often apparently by nothing, which end in disaster. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, we mourn the deaths of young soldiers, most of whom are farmers.

I prefer some retold myths to others. Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses is, naturally, the best. I stopped reading Madeline Millers’ Circe after an abortive attempt to listen to the audiobook, but perhaps I’d do better with the actual book.

And yet many worthy retold myths that were not best-sellers or well-publicized are worth reviving. Take a look at these four you may not have heard of. One might be right for you.

The dreadful cover of this mass-market paperback has nothing at all to do with the novel!

Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan. No one has read this book since it was published in 1985, except me, I swear. It is forgotten, neglected, wacky, hard to categorize, and the cover of my mass-market paperbook is not a good sell. In this witty novel, set during a magical summer in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, the heroine, Larissa, an amateur artist, participates in an ecology campaign to fight the development of condos on the riverbank. She also has an affair with the god Pan, who, it turns out, has been stuck in Minnesota for most of the century. (P.S. I just learned this fun read is available from Kindle, so it IS more or less in print.)

Homer’s Daughter by Robert Graves. In this neglected feminist masterpiece, the author of the Odyssey is not Homer, but Nausicaa, the intellectual princess and rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey.  I loved this novel: in fact, I’m due for a reread. Your may already be acquainted with Graves’s The Greek Myths, or his famous novel I, Claudius.

The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse by Jane Rawlings.  Published in 2003, this is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view. It is not a masterpiece, but the free verse flows and is easy to read. The plot does not center of Odysseus: when he returns from the war after 20 years, Penelope reveals that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure and hid them at her father-in-law’s house to keep them safe from enemies.  Both Odysseus and their son Telemachus feel betrayed by this revelation. Much ado…

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. I very much enjoyed this novella, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and Puget Sound. Due to a divine quarrel between Persephone and Hades, Persephone hides out in Seattle, working as a waitress who calls herself Lioness. During a summer that continues into fall because Persephone is not underground, Hades and Demeter search for her, but the real focus is on the human protagonists. Abe, a retired history professor and a blues fan, rents his garage to Persephone/Lioness;  and his longtime lover, Joanna, a fiftysomething flight attendant, is is not only sick of flying but worries about her lesbian daughter Lily’s crush on Persephone. This sweet novella is a myth about climate change.

What are your favorite retold or reimagined myths? There are so many to choose from!