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  • Writer's pictureNora Curry

Greek Retellings

When Madeleine Miller published The Song of Achilles in 2011, who would have guessed that this relatively unknown author's version of the Trojan War story would be riding near the top of the New York Times bestseller list a decade later? The novel reinvents the Iliad by telling the story of Patroclus and Achilles' relationship from the former's perspective. Miller's critically acclaimed Circe does for the Odyssey what The Song of Achilles does for the Iliad, taking a strand of one of Homer's epics and imbuing it with a different perspective, in this case giving voice to the witch Circe instead of casting her to the sidelines. The appeal of Miller's novels is not just that they take well known stories and make them increasingly accessible and engaging but rather that she turns the epics on their heads by placing the narratives in the hands and words of the more marginalized characters. And while Miller is still topping the bestseller lists, she's not the first nor the last to reinvigorate the world of Greek mythology.

Natalie Haynes' recent novel A Thousand Ships, like Circe, tackles a Greek story from the female perspective, telling the tale of the Trojan War from alternating viewpoints of the women involved. From Aeneas' wife Creusa to Helen herself, the women who played more minor roles in traditional Greek versions of the wartime myths are given the chance to tell their own stories. Haynes' version of the war reminds me of the first time I read the Iliad and glazed over battle scenes but could not stop thinking of Andromache on the ramparts with her baby, saying goodbye to Hector and knowing what his fate would likely be. In the hands of classicist and novelist Haynes, the plights of Andromache and her fellow Trojan women are not fleeting; they are enduring, worth hundreds of pages rather than just a few. Why do so many of us keep returning to these stories when there are so many more seemingly socially and culturally relevant books being published every week? Because they are entertaining and enjoyable, yes, but also because they flexible, because they can be made relevant by prompting readers to rethink the roles and experiences of those typically given little room to speak.

With A Thousand Ships garnering acclaim and Jennifer Saint's recent debut novel Ariadne reinventing yet another Greek myth from a female perspective, it's clear that telling classic stories through the words and experiences of the marginalized has becoming an appealing literary subset. What better time, then, to check out an array of Greek retellings? From debut novelists to renowned authors to classicists trying their hand at fiction, the list below features a mix of recent takes on Greek myths and epics. Read about a variety of works, both from this year and a bit older, and click on the links to request them in our catalog.


The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood

"In Homer's account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages... In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: "What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?" In Atwood's dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing." - Goodreads

"Booker Prize-winning Barker... reaches back in time to the Trojan War, when women served mainly as slaves or prostitutes or laid out the dead. At the heart of the narrative is not the battle between Greeks and Trojans but between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis, once queen of a kingdom neighboring Troy and now Achilles's concubine after he murdered her husband and brothers." - Library Journal

The Women of Troy, Pat Barker

"Following her bestselling, critically acclaimed The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker continues her extraordinary retelling of one of our greatest myths. Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home victors, loaded with their spoils: their stolen gold, stolen weapons, stolen women. All they need is a good wind to lift their sails..." - Goodreads

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes

"The women of the Trojan War take center stage in this excellent take on the Greek classics from Haynes. Hopping through nearly a dozen perspectives, Haynes provides an enthralling reimagining of the lives of women from both Troy and Greek culture." - Publishers Weekly

Daughters of Sparta, Claire Heywood

"Heywood's engrossing first novel follows the fortunes of two of the most famous women in the ancient world, the sisters and princesses Klytemnestra and Helen, renowned for her exquisite beauty. Heywood introduces them as girls, daughters of the king of Sparta, who already know at a young age that they have important destinies... Readers intimately familiar with the mythology and those new to this classic story alike will find themselves breathlessly turning the pages as Heywood unspools the tragic consequences of Helen's actions and the horrific sacrifice Klytemnestra is forced to make. An utterly spellbinding historical yarn." - Booklist

Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin

"Fantasist and SF writer Le Guin turns her attention and her considerable talent to fleshing out a secondary character mentioned briefly in Virgil's masterpiece, The Aeneid. Though Aeneas risks inciting a civil war as he fights to win her hand in marriage, despite the fact that she is promised to another, more politically expedient suitor, Lavinia herself remains strangely mute and is given no scope in the epic poem. Here, as Le Guin reworks the story, Lavinia evolves into a true woman of destiny, eventually forging a strong partnership with the legendary founder of Rome." - Booklist

Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, Nina MacLaughlin

"Seductresses and she-monsters, nymphs and demi-goddesses, populate the famous myths of Ovid's Metamorphoses. But what happens when the story of the chase comes in the voice of the woman fleeing her rape? When the beloved coolly returns the seducer's gaze? When tales of monstrous transfiguration are sung by those transformed? In voices both mythic and modern, Wake, Siren revisits each account of love, loss, rape, revenge, and change. It lays bare the violence that undergirds and lurks in the heart of Ovid's narratives, stories that helped build and perpetuate the distorted portrayal of women across centuries of art and literature." - Goodreads

Circe, Madeline Miller

"A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch... The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus' crew of men into pigs... Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters." - Kirkus Reviews

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

"Miller debuts with a novel that combines the poetic drama of The Iliad with a 21st-century understanding of war, sex, sexual politics, and Trojan War heroism. Miller’s tale begins with Patroclus’ unhappy childhood as the disappointing son of an ambitious king... She breaks new ground retelling one of the world’s oldest stories about men in love and war, but it is the extraordinary women—Iphigenia, Briseis, and Thetis—who promise readers remarkable things to come as Miller carves out a custom-made niche in historical fiction." - Publishers Weekly

Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips

"British blogger Phillips's delightful debut finds the Greek gods and goddesses living in a tumbledown house in modern-day London and facing a very serious problem: their powers are waning, and immortality does not seem guaranteed. In between looking for work and keeping house, the ancient family is still up to its oldest pursuit: crossing and double-crossing each other..." - Publishers Weekly

Ariadne, Jennifer Saint

"Saint’s enchanting debut retells the myth of the minotaur through the eyes of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete... As the women navigate their changing positions of power, they court disaster at the hands of both gods and men. Saint expertly highlights how often the women of this world pay the price for the actions of the men around them." - Publishers Weekly

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

"The story of Antigone plays out in the modern world, in this Man Booker-longlisted exploration of the clash between society, family and religious faith... Home Fire pulls off a fine balancing act: it is a powerful exploration of the clash between society, family and faith in the modern world, while tipping its hat to the same dilemma in the ancient one." - The Guardian

House of Names, Colm Tóibín

"Tóibín, an enthusiast of classic storytelling, from the Bible (The Testament of Mary, 2012) to Henry James (The Master, 2004), this time takes a crack at Greek mythology. This novel of palace intrigue is inspired by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, focusing on the House of Atreus' murderous infighting." - Kirkus Reviews

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