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.
3. The Once and Future King, T.H. White (1958)
T.H. White brought Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to a modern audience when he published The Once and Future King in 1958, and it’s an essential read for knight-lovers and lovers of romantic intrigue alike.
Peppered with White’s tongue-in-cheek embellishments, the text is a combination of various works, forming a comprehensive compendium of the integral myths involving King Arthur: the stone-ensconced sword, simian-like Lancelot’s liaisons with Guinevere, and Meryln’s interminable sermonizing.
Don’t be deceived by its enjoyable levity, though: The Once and Future King interrogates the ordinances of merit, morality, and democratic leadership in a fashion that makes White’s epic a fascinating analogue to the political contingencies of contemporary life.
4. Wayward Heroes, Halladór Laxness (1958), translated by Philip Roughton (2016)
Nobel Laureate Halladór Laxness’s lovingly satirical take on the trials and travails of ‘sworn brothers’ Thorgeir and Thormod is a massively entertaining, if at times overwhelming, introduction to the traditional Icelandic Sagas. Philip Roughton’s translation keeps the character’s Icelandic nomenclature intact (Thorgeir as ‘Þorgeir’ and Thormod as ‘Þormóđur’) which, in my experience at least, impedes cohesive comprehension on the English reader’s part.
Nevertheless, Wayward Heroes elicits the child-like thrills we expect from mercurial mythology, and Laxness imbues the complementary archetypes – the fighter and the bard – with both ironic bravado, comical foibles, and an underlying pathos, as the traditions on which they’ve modeled themselves gradually dissolve around them.
5. Queen Pokou: Concerto for a Sacrifice, Veronique Tadjo (2010)
Self-described Pan-African writer Véronique Tadjo dismantles fate in this magnificent adaptation of the Akan myth of Queen Abraha Poku – the legendary progenitor of the Baoule people, who sacrificed her son for the greater good.
Tadjo relates the myth in an unbroken circuit: she tells the same story again and again, retaining the skeleton of the original myth but continually altering contingencies – juggling eventualities that take on momentous proportions, in relation to the double bind of a mother who is also a Matriarch. It’s a historically incisive, engaging work of writing, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the rich realm of West African folklore.