The retellings of Ancient Greek mythology are currently experiencing a Renaissance on BookTok and Bookstagram. People are obsessed with works such as Circe or Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller or The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy by Pat Barker. How come readers are fascinated by mythological fiction? What is new in these retellings, of the stories that have been known for so long? I am going to name five aspects of why it is back on people’s bookshelves and why you should definitely check them out.
The Epicness: Just like Homer’s The Iliad or The Odyssey, the narrative most of the time focuses on one protagonist and their point of view. Just as we know this from the genre of the epic, it narrates the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures. In our case, these figures are the characters in the book, here, some names are more familiar than others: Circe, Prometheus, Briseis, Achilles, Agamemnon, and many more whom we can all identify from Homer’s works.
The Intimacy: Every Ancient fiction I have read so far is told from the hero’s or heroine’s point of view. These first-person narratives enable a very intimate insight into our main characters. We experience war, rape, and objectification. On a deeper level, we can feel their heartbreaks, their loneliness, and their fears.
The Developments: Since our hero or heroine is on a long journey and faces many challenges, we can follow their development as a character. Circe, e.g., is strictly speaking just like every other Coming of Age novel. We meet this little girl and accompany her growing up. With Briseis in The Silence of the Girls, we do not meet her in childhood. However, the first chapter gives some insight into how she became a Trojan queen and this involves some references to her childhood. We then follow Briseis’s story in Achilles’s camp and her development as Achilles’s “price of honour” and bed companion.
Feminism: All three books named above give women in Greek mythology voices that are now heard and listened to for the first time – they are no longer some minor characters in Homer’s works. Since common epic accounts are traditionally by men about men, such as Achilles or Odysseus, Miller and Barker explore women’s voices in a patriarchal society and, thereby, introduce us to heroines with strong characters. The new representation of women is particularly exciting when it comes to the genre of the epic.
“We’re going to survive — our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams — and in their worst nightmares too.”
From The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Value: One thing that I can promise to everyone reading Ancient fiction is that you will definitely value reading it – both, academically and culturally. We not only learn about historic events, such as the Trojan War, and historical or mythological figures, such as Achilles, Circe and Briseis, but we encounter their cultural values: their fears, their honour, their longings, and their emotions. The novels focus on their moral standards and their day-to-day living situations presenting ideas of Ancient times that are still relevant in modern times.
Don’t be afraid to pick up Ancient or mythological fiction as it gives insights into a new form of epicness and intimacy which is missing from former works such as Homer’s. These novels depict various female characters’ developments and make them noticeable for the first time in the epic. The moral standards and the everyday life we encounter teach us about certain values and emotions of the bygone age which are, in the end, all more or less familiar to the modern age as well.
There are many more novels with a mythological and Ancient focus out there waiting to yet be discovered by us.
Most Ardently, Mattea