Books: Reimagining old myths to scratch new itches
From TikTok star Bea Fitzgerald’s debut novel, ‘Girl, Goddess, Queen’ to Rebecca Caprara’s ‘Spin’, here are five feminist retellings
With the scent of spring in the air, readers’ thoughts may turn to Persephone, goddess of spring and summer and queen of the underworld.
Happily, TikTok star Bea Fitzgerald’s debut novel, Girl, Goddess, Queen offers a feminist retelling of the Greek myth according to which Hades, smitten by Persephone’s beauty, abducted her and took her to the underworld to be his queen.
Though feminist retellings of familiar stories have been fashionable for decades, The Telegraph describes Fitzgerald’s novel as “a breath of fresh air” that provides a thoroughly new perspective on the Persephone myth.
In the classic myth, Hades kidnaps Persephone, but here she takes the plunge into hell herself. Raised on an island with only nymphs for company, Persephone’s wild nature leads her to the underworld to escape an arranged marriage to an narcissistic suitor of her parents’ choosing, reimagining Hades as her unwitting accomplice and turning the myth on its head.
Authors and editors believe that retellings will remain popular as long as they offer new perspectives and emotional depth. In the tradition of oral storytelling, the stories evolve with each telling. Another debut novel, Medusa’s Sisters by Lauren JA Bear, takes a fresh spin on the Medusa myth by shining the spotlight on her lesser-known siblings, Stheno and Euryale.
Bear delves into their intricate lives, relationships, and adventures. Blending historical research and creative flair, Bear meticulously weaves a more empowered and subversive narrative for the Gorgons. The book artfully alternates between the perspectives of Stheno and Euryale, and the writing has a lyrical quality reminiscent of ancient Greek drama. Bear emphasises that the act of retelling these stories and transferring power to female characters is a counter to historically male-centric viewpoints.
According to The Boston Globe, “Bear never softens her unsparing vision of an ancient world dominated by male violence and Olympian capriciousness. But she empowers female figures demonised through the ages to voice their own ideas about who they are and about the merciless forces that have determined their destinies.”
Described by the publisher as “an anthology of gender-bent, queered, race-bent, and inclusive retellings from the enchanting and eternally popular world of Greek myth”, Fit for the Gods, an anthology edited by Jenn Northington and S Zainab Williams, reimagines Greek myths through various genders, genres and perspectives. “Smart, playful, funny, and insightful, these stories scratched an itch I didn’t even realise I had,” said Victor LaValle, author of Lone Women. “Such a pleasure to see these familiar tales spun in a brand new and beautiful way. I had a blast with this book.”
House Of Odysseus by Claire North follows the critically acclaimed Ithaca and is the second novel in North’s Songs of Penelope trilogy. It tells the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as never before.
Penelope skilfully maintains a fragile power balance during the prolonged absence of her husband. Her strategy is challenged when Orestes, the unstable King of Mycenae and son of Agamemnon, arrives on the island. Haunted by guilt for killing his mother, Orestes is descending into insanity. Desperate to shield him from the power-hungry figures of Mycenae, his sister Elektra brings him to Ithaca under Penelope’s protection.
Turmoil ensues as Menelaus, the ruthless king of Sparta and Orestes’ uncle, arrives on Ithaca in pursuit of the throne. Penelope finds herself safeguarding Ithaca from two mentally unstable kings. Her allies include Elektra and Helen of Troy, and as the three women grapple with secrets, they weave their own destiny.
Spin by Rebecca Caprara tells the story of Arachne, the impetuous mortal who challenged the goddess Athena to a duel of the looms. The young Arachne expresses herself through her craft, and when her mother places a woven offering on and indifferent Athena’s altar, she questions whether the Olympian weaver has ever done anything to deserve their worship.
As she and her friend Celandine reach marriageable age, Arachne’s bitter contempt for capricious deities who rape, impregnate, then abandon the humans they fancy percolates, and she refutes the gods’ merciless exercise of power and privilege.
“Gifted poet and storyteller keeps readers engaged, varying the pace, cadence, and emotional shading of Arachne’s passionate refutation of the gods’ ruthless exercise of power and privilege,” according to Kirkus Reviews. “Her own anger serves her purposes; if speaking truth to power exacts a high price, it’s one she’s willing to pay. Exciting, richly textured, thought-provoking fare.”
The appetite for retellings appears to be strong and shows no signs of diminishing. Readers love them because they challenge traditional narratives. By refocusing on overlooked or sidelined female characters, these retellings emphasise agency, address power imbalances, explore female relationships, and reimagine endings.
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