In case you didn’t know, mythology retellings are like historical novels, but, instead of being based on real events in the history of the past, they are based on myths (Greco-Latin, par excellence).
They are novels written from scratch, based on the matter of myths, yes, but not as a simple compilation or homogenization of that mythological matter into a story, but as a substantially original composition based on myths.
Therefore, the mythological retelling can take elements from the mythological tradition and rework them, reinterpret them, etc., even if that means not being totally faithful to the myth (if that means anything, the myth being so highly variable already among ancient authors).
For example, W. M. L. Hutchinson is a superb compiler-homogenizer of myths, but her works would not fit this definition of mythological retelling; Madeline Miller with The Song of Achilles or Colleen McCullough with The Song of Troy would (to give a couple of examples). Of course, there are times when it is not easy to establish the borderline between a mythological story and a mythological retelling, but there is no need to go to such lengths.
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The following is the ranking of my three favorite mythological retellings, subject to change at any time.
A relatively extensive account of the Trojan war, including what caused it (not limited to the trial of Paris), briefly the first Trojan War (in the times of Laomedon, Priam’s father), and what happened after the war itself.
Each chapter is narrated by different characters from their point of view, which allows us to see some events and episodes from different angles without being repetitive.
In my opinion, two are mainly the great strengths and differentiators of this novel: its very fine sense of humor, and the reinterpretation of many episodes of the myth (some not very well known) in a more or less rationalizing way without losing an iota of mythological charm.
Much more famous than the previous one. Curiously enough, it was thanks to The Song of Achilles that I discovered The Song of Troy because of a comment that accused Miller of basically plagiarizing McCullough. However, although the theme is similar (the Trojan war, after all…), beyond that, the novels are completely different.
In The Song of Achilles, which could perfectly well have been called The Song of Patroclus (although that would have sold less, I guess), the childhood into manhood of both friends and lovers is narrated, and how they end up participating in the Trojan war.
The narrator is at all times Patroclus, so you always see everything from his perspective (even after he dies at the hands of Hector). The role of the gods is much more important and divine (for example, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, appears frequently as the goddess she is). And of course, considerable attention is given to the relationship of friendship and love between Achilles and Patroclus.
At the moment, I don’t have a title that I consider worthy of sharing the podium with the previous two. Coming soon? Hopefully!
All the retellings
Below I list all the retellings whose existence I know of, arranged in alphabetical order of author (by last name), and, within each author, in chronological order. The fact that a novel is here does not necessarily mean that I recommend it or that I have (audio)read it: I only note its existence.
- The Penelopiad (2005) An account of Odysseus’ absence and return from the point of view of his wife Penelope. It is a kind of anachronistic account from the afterlife, in the 21st century, aware of having already died but without really caring, giving her version of the events of what happened in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The twelve maids who will die as part of the revenge on Odysseus’s return also intervene secondarily, imitating in a certain way the chorus of Greek tragedies. It is a light book with some humor, too goofy at times.
- Helen of Troy (2006)
- The Children of Jocasta (2017) It tells the story of Jocasta’s life, from her marriage to Laius when she was almost a child until she meets Oedipus and they have their famous children. It is interesting how it departs from Sophocles’s version in many details, making the story more “rationalistic” and less tragic.
- A Thousand Ships (2019) From the perspective of various women during (and somewhat before and after) the Trojan War, each of them narrates her adventures and (above all) misadventures. It is not properly a novel, but a series of relatively independent chapters, though there is more or less continuity in characters such as Penelope.
- Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths (2020) It is not really a novel, but rather an essay that talks about the women of the myths. Even so, it is written in such a pleasant way that at no time does it feel heavy or excessively erudite (despite the fact that there is a good documenting process behind it). Although women are discussed in general, it is also done from the point of view of their subjugation to men and heroes.
- Stone Blind: Medusa’s Story (2022) Novel about Medusa that roughly follows the “standard” version of the myth. There is humor, although it often becomes too much, as well as certain digressions. Still, interesting.
- Daughters of Sparta (2021)
- King of Ithaca (2008)
- The Gates of Troy (2009)
- The Armour of Achilles (2010)
- The Oracles of Troy (2014)
- The Voyage of Odysseus (2016)
- Return to Ithaca (2017)
- Son of Zeus (2018)
- Wrath of the Gods (2018)
- Hero of Olympus (2019)
Ursula K. Le Guin
- Lavinia (2008) Novel told by Lavinia, the wife that Aeneas takes when he arrives in Italy. It begins somewhat phantasmagorically and strangely, but then becomes more normal. Lavinia is aware of her own non-existence (in the Aeneid she is little more than “the wife of”), and in this novel, in a way, she vindicates her own history, from before the arrival of Aeneas until even after the hero’s death.
- Athena’s Child (2020) Novel about Medusa, who begins the story as a simple priestess of Athena. When she is raped by Poseidon, Athena feels outraged and takes unjust revenge on her, turning her into the famous monster. Secondarily, Perseus appears, but he’s just another poor bastard ruled by his destiny.
- A Spartan’s Sorrow (2021) Novel about Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, during the Trojan war. The first part, the one centered on Clytemnestra, is very good, I would say 10/10; moreover, the author manages to make us empathize with the motivations of this heroine, traditionally treated as a vile and treacherous anti-heroine. After the murder of Agamemnon, the novel loses Clytemnestra as the protagonist, a role that passes to her son Orestes, and becomes more tedious.
- Queens of Themiscyra (2022) Novel about the Amazons, mainly Hippolyta in the first half and Penthesilea in the second half. The first part, centered on Hippolyta and Theseus, is quite entertaining. The second, about Penthesilea’s revenge and penance, is too long; it doesn’t help that the character is rather hateful.
Valerio Massimo Manfredi
- The Song of Troy (1998)
- The Song of Achilles (2011) Patroclus narrates how he became Achilles’s companion and how they ended up fighting in the Trojan war. Quite intimate.
- Circe (2018) Circe’s autobiography, from her lesser-known episodes until Odysseus enters her life towards the middle of the book; this second part is very good, although the first is somewhat scattered.
- Galatea (2022) Short story, re-released. The text itself is not brilliant, so it could only be recommended to those who really love the author.
- Last of the Amazons (2002)