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!

On Dead Blogs and What I’m Reading

Is the blog dead?

My impression is that old-fashioned blogs are our grandmothers’ social media platform now. We have been replaced by BookTube and nugatory Instagram posts.

This is not a crackpot theory.  A 2018 survey at Pew Research does not even mention Blogger or WordPress.  This study of social media found:

Facebook and YouTube dominate this landscape, as notable majorities of U.S. adults use each of these sites. At the same time, younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.”

As the years go by, I find myself reading fewer blogs, clicking on fewer “likes,” and commenting less. It isn’t so much the quality as  it about less screen time. Today I learned that Belle at the splendid blog Belle, Book and Candle wrote her last post in December. Oh no!  I will miss her smart style, humor, serenity, and eclectic tastes in books.  So many of my favorites have folded.

It is a pity that greedy computer moguls have created social networking platforms that rely more on pictures than words.   And I’m not exaggerating too much!   But I might be wrong about the Silicon Valley part.  I don’t know the origins.

AND NOW HERE’S WHAT I’VE BEEN READING.

1. Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a collection of linked autobiographical essays. In 1993, Houston was living in a tent when her agent gave her a check for $21,000  for her debut collection of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, with the advice, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots.”  After traveling around the West, Houston bought a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies. Although she spends half the year teaching, she always comes back to the ranch, which is the home of her Irish wolfhounds, two elderly horses, a bonded pair of rescue miniature donkeys, Icelandic ewes, and chickens. Houston, who has been a skiing instructor and led white-water raft trips, tells fascinating tales of nature, endurance of the cold, and quasi-primitive living. I cried and cried over the death of one of her dogs.

2.   Robert Graves’s compelling historical novel, I, Claudius.  This classic, set in the first century A.D., is the autobiography of the crippled, stuttering Roman emperor Claudius.  He learned to keep his head down to survive the dangers of the reigns of three emperors: Augustus, who brought peace after  civil wars but whose wife Livia poisoned his heirs and many others; Livia’s cruel, perverted son, Tiberius, who was a good general but uninterested in empire and spent long periods frolicking on Capri; and mad murderous Caligula, whose insane cruelty ruined more lives than Livia.  Claudius becomes emperor at the end of the novel, and  the story is continued in Claudius the God.  Many of the events are based on episodes in Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, which Graves translated.

3. Dark Narnia.  This is my nickname for Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first two novels in her much lauded Wayward  series. Every SF publication heralded the publication of McGuire’s fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream, which is apparently based on Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.  (Last year I read a brilliant  Goblin Market retelling, Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood.) I decided to read the others first.

I like the premise:  Miss West’e Home for Wayward Children is a refuge for children who disappeared for years through portals to magical lands and cannot adjust to ordinary life.  These books begin like gentle fantasies and  then morph into Sf/horror.  In Every Heart a Doorway, a series of brutal murders are committed.  In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Mcguire tells the adventures of twins Jack and Jill (two students we meet in Every Heart a Doorway) and their years working for a vampire and a doctor who can bring the dead back to life.

They’re not for me–I don’t like horror–but  many SF fans consider them classics.

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