For something a couple thousand years old, Greek mythology has still got a strong hold on us. Is it the ageless hero archetypes? Is it the bizarre bestiary of sphinxes and satyrs? Is it the sweeping epics -- the elemental drama of it all? Personally, I was always drawn to Greek myths because of the humanity of the gods. They were bitter, jealous, sneaky, infatuated...they felt alive, and exciting. The mortals, too, were less than perfect, with famous figures like Oedipus thwarted not only by fate, but their own fate...ul flaws. My fatal flaw? Writing fate...ul. I’ve just been stabbed.
And while we love the myths themselves, our unfading fascination has also compelled us to take these stories and retell them -- adapt them -- transform them for a new age. I can’t think of any current examples off the top of my head...nothing running right now, right here in Philly until November 18th...definitely nothing with all Pay What You Decide performances...oh well. Let’s run through some other notable examples of writers playing seamstress -- taking the threads of antiquity, and spinning them into something new. But not like the Fates, where the one goes and cuts the thread when you die? That’s just spooky. Halloween is OVER.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
If you remember anything about The Odyssey, the first thing is probably not going to be Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. Or maybe it is! I can’t speak for you. You are your own entity, and you contain multitudes, and I appreciate you. But -- needless to say, Penelope is not one of the epic’s most famous featured players. That’s why in 2005, Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, teacher and environmental activist Margaret Atwood decided to examine what the iconic story might look like from her perspective. It takes ten years for Odysseus to return from the Trojan War, a decade that Wikipedia describes as “eventful.” Thanks, Wikipedia. I’m sure Homer would love that review. “The Odyssey is...eventful.” Back in Ithaca, Penelope’s left dealing with suitors upon suitors. But the timeline of The Odyssey is only part of the novel, which also explores Penelope’s childhood and marriage to Odysseus before the war. It’s an interesting expansion that shows what can be added to a story by playing with perspective.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Though C.S. Lewis is probably best known in my generation for making the crucifixion adorable by putting a big ol’ fluffy lion in it (another review I don’t think the author would especially appreciate), did you know he also wrote this neat book retelling the tale of Cupid and Psyche in 1956? Maybe you did. You are your own entity, you contain multitudes, and I appreciate you. Is something C.S. Lewis, would never say to me. What were we talking about? Lions. No! Cupid and Psyche. Although it’s an iconic love story from the Greek canon that’s been the subject of much art and sculpture, Lewis always felt that the characters made some decisions that -- how do I put this -- didn’t make sense. So, like the writer he was, he decided to just do it his own way! Much like when he read the Bible, and said, this is not adorable enough; in fact, it’s really quite sad. Let me add a lion. The book was very well-received, and though I haven’t read it, I’d very much like to now!
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, directed by the Coen Brothers
This one bounces right back to The Odyssey, but it’s in a very different vein of its own from The Penelopiad. Taking loose inspiration from the original epic, the Coen Brothers film sees George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, a convict in the Depression-era south who’s just escaped from a chain gang. His journey with two companions to retrieve a buried treasure is the journey that mirrors Odysseus's ten-year trek. The film includes clever references to features of Homer’s tale, including the trio running into their own Cyclops, a large one-eyed man named “Big Dan.” This adaptation is an interesting one; it very much creates its own world, fleshes out its own original characters, and confines itself to a specific modern time. And yet, those story seeds borrowed from The Odyssey are there, and recognizable, and give it a lot of life. Probably. I haven’t seen it. I should probably be writing about media I’ve actually consumed, huh? Let’s fix that.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Oh, heck yeah. We’re in the big leagues now. If you haven’t heard of the Percy Jackson series or the disappointing movie adaptations, congratulations -- you were not in middle school in the mid-2000s, and your life is probably better for it. Also, to recap, the series features a titular 12 year-old, Percy, who discovers that his birth father is actually the Greek god Poseidon, making him a demigod. Oh, and that, you know, the Greek gods are real. Because. One of them is his dad. Percy Jackson was exciting to me not only because they were actually really funny and engaging books, but because they coincided with me learning about Greek mythology in school, which made me that much more excited to learn about it. The books blend mythical creatures and gods with the modern world in a pretty awesome way. Reading is cool! If you are a young adult, or you have a young adult child, who has not read Percy Jackson, I highly recommend it! This one I am actually qualified to recommend.
You know what else I’m qualified to recommend? My current favorite Greek myth retelling, warplay! Aha! Remember at the beginning, when I pretended I didn’t remember? That was a ruse. Smoke and mirrors. I knew the whole time, believe it or not it’s why I wrote this post. That is to say, you’ve been thoroughly duped.
What are some of your favorite retellings of these classic tales of antiquity? Leave a comment! And see if warplay becomes one after you reserve your tickets today.
Happy weekend, Azuka friends and family!