Fiction has always had a symbiotic relationship to mythology: the former takes its substance from the latter, which in turn is revivified for contemporary consumption. But in the last few years, there’s been a notable renaissance in the popularity of books that look back to the tales of antiquity. Neil Gaiman has been at the helm of an onslaught of postmodern re-inventions with American Gods and Norse Mythology; while Stephen Fry’s charmingly pert Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece constitutes a wonderful – albeit limited – contemporary alternative to the soporific prose of Robert Graves.
We are genuinely spoiled for choice where novel accounts of the Classical myths are concerned, which is why I have limited myself to a single neo-Homeric recommendation on this list. The following novels comprise some of the best literary interpretations of mythological traditions from around the world.
1. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller (2011)
Madeline Miller used to teach Ancient Greek and Latin; she spent a decade composing The Song of Achilles, to tremendous effect. Within the mythological context of The Illiad, Miller’s protagonist Patroclus relates his life-long romance with the hero Achilles, which culminates in the events of the Trojan War.
Without compromising the integrity of her deliberate prose, or marring the manifold intricacies of an ancient plot-line, Miller manages to fabricate a devastatingly beautiful, unconventional love story, which effectively brings a world that is peopled by spiteful gods and polymath centaurs into timeless relation with our own.
(Miller released her wildly-anticipated second novel Circe this month, which is why I saw fit to include The Song of Achilles on this list, in spite of my intention to sideline Greco-Roman mythology.)
2. The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2008)
Indian-American poet and author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tackles one of the two essential Hindu epics, the Mahabrata, in her nuanced interpretation of the figure of Panchaali. Divakaruni relates the epic through the eyes of her heroine, who marries five brothers, nurses a highly illicit ardor – beyond the bounds of her pentamerous union! – unwittingly befriends a god, and suffers through exile and a legendary war.
Essentially, Divakaruni reimagines a complex, canonical tale in a manner that symbolically inverts Panchaali’s subjugation, while also managing to intimate that, as a woman in the deeply patriarchal world of the epic, Panchaali’s recourse to choice is curbed by a hegemony of men.