There seems to be an ongoing fascination with Greek mythology and reinterpreting them for a contemporary reader. Emma Clarendon explores this enduring curiosity for mythology and some of the best books she has read about them.
I can’t really remember where my obsession with Greek mythology began – except from maybe bits and pieces that I picked up from the Horrible Histories: Groovy Greeks book as a child, which if I recall properly did make reference to Cronus swallowing down all of his new born children which seemed to oddly fascinate me (even though I knew it wasn’t possible).
As a teenager, I attempted to read The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive edition by Robert Graves. Sadly, it didn’t hold my interest as it came across as too sombre for my liking and didn’t feel as though it was giving the characters or stories life.
But in more recent years, there have been countless novels and books that have managed to have captured the spirit of the myths and reinterpreted them in a really lively and imaginative ways.
My interest of reading about Greek mythology was reawakened by the publication of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a focus on the Trojan War from the perspective of the famous warrior and his close friend Patroclus. Written with wonderful poetic fluidity, this gorgeous book managed to make the characters come across as human with real flaws – making them feel more relatable. While retaining that mystical quality to the story, Miller’s story also grounded it in reality.
The same could also be said with her follow up Circe , telling the less told story of the enchantress who is banished to the island of of Aiaia. This reinterpretation felt very contemporary in tone as Circe relishes her freedom but also embraces her powers and individuality that is inspiring in many ways.
It is this ability to see them through contemporary eyes that highlights just how many themes and messages we can take from these stories to reflect our own lives that captures both imagination and attention.
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun with them as well as Stephen Fry’s Mythos, Heroes and Troy reveal. Written with great humour – but of course with intelligence as well – the characters are deeply flawed and that is perhaps part of the attraction, we can somehow see glimpses of ourselves in them (perhaps not in such a dramatic way of course) in the choices that they make. Lightly written but told with great understanding, it is a favourite read to come back to time and time again.
Meanwhile, with her books A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar , Natalie Haynes celebrates the women characters – who are often portrayed terribly in myths – again to show how differently we could see these characters if we saw the myth from a different perspective. This is highlighted to fascinating effect in Pandora’s Jar, while A Thousand Ships concentrates on the impact that the Trojan war had on women. Both books are fascinating to read and make the reader open their mind to the endless interpretations that shows them off differently.
Whether it is highlighting morals and messages that affect our day to day lives or changes the way we see the world in some way, Greek myths are such a rich source of inspiration for authors. Just having a quick google search, I have discovered many more that I need to catch up on and enjoy.
It has certainly been proved that Greek myths certainly don’t have to be dull – not with all the drama that is at the centre of them.
By Emma Clarendon