Jennifer Saint on Greek Myth RetellingsJun 18, 2023
Jennifer Saint knows about writing a Greek mythology book in the 21st century. The Sunday Times number 1 bestselling author of Ariadne, Elektra and Atalanta, Jennifer has taken classic Greek myths and given them a feminist twist and contemporary spin. The stories of these three women – overlooked in the most well-known myths that often, to our detriment, centred the male Greek heroes – have been given a new lease of life in Jennifer’s mythology retellings: they have their own origin story, their own epic love story or Greek tragedy. Their own stories, reimagined.
And Greek mythology retellings are big business.
From the smash-hit historical fiction bestsellers The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, Stone Blind and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, to Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad), Claire North (Ithaca) and the award-winning feminist retelling of the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, these famous myths have been given a fresh perspective, a feminist retelling or a contemporary twist. They top the bestseller charts around the world and frequently make the awards shortlists for the biggest literary prizes: The Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
It’s not all ancient Greece, either. There are modern retellings featuring Greek gods in our modern world, as well as deeply funny stories for children: the enduring popularity of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, which is currently being adapted into a television series by Disney (Percy Jackson’s second outing on the big screen after a film starring Uma Thurman in 2010), features a world of Greek gods and demi-gods as Percy Jackson navigates the teenage landscape of summer camp and ancient myth. There are graphic novels too, with Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe picking up a dedicated audience.
So how do you write a Greek mythology retelling? How do you select your myth, render the gods as relatable characters in a brutal world, and find something new to say?
Ahead of her live Q&A with writers of The Novelry, Jennifer Saint shares a fascinating insight into Greek mythology retellings and how to write them. Read on for more about this inspiring genre of fiction.
Why retell ancient myths at all?
The world of Greek mythology is vast and sprawling; a dizzying labyrinth (if you will) of stories that twine together and split into myriad versions. They don’t spring from a single source; there is no authoritative voice that tells us what the ‘real’ myth is or from where it came. How could there be? Myths grew through the tradition of oral retellings long before they were ever written down and every time someone recounts a myth – speaking it aloud, painting it on to a vase, turning it into a poem, a play or a novel – it is transformed into something fresh.
As a child, I fell in love with the capricious gods, the battles and adventures, the brave heroes and tragic women as depicted by Roger Lancelyn-Green in his classic children’s book The Tale of Troy. Picking it up from my bookshelf now, I’m struck by Michelle Paver’s foreword in which she writes that when we read the myths today, we are another link in a chain of storytelling that spans nearly three thousand years. It feels significant, to be part of something so quietly momentous.
So when people ask me why I choose to retell Greek mythology, I think of how these myths have endured and evolved throughout the centuries.
I remember visiting sites of ancient ruins on family holidays, of looking at mosaics and thinking of the hands that assembled them in a world that is left to us only in fragments now. Of standing in the sweeping curve of the theatre at Kourion in Cyprus where an audience might have been held captive by stories that thrill me today, two thousand years later.
When we walk among these ruins, or look at pottery and jewellery through the glass of a museum case, or marvel at a long-dead sculptor’s skill then we feel a physical connection to the past – it was here, it is tangible, we can reach out and touch it and know something about the people who lived in it.
But when we share their stories – when we tell the same tales that were recited at feasts, whispered by firelight, performed on stages – then we feel an emotional connection too. Myths tell us about the fantastical; about magic and monsters, gods and curses, prophecies and impossibilities, but they also tell us about the human heart. They are stories of love, loss, grief, hope, ambition and betrayal. Myths feel urgent in their eagerness to be remembered, to be shared anew and to remind us of what binds us all together.
Which Greek myth should you choose?
For me, the stories I want to reimagine are those of the women whose voices call out across the centuries, powerful and persuasive.
The women of myth are compelling and complex. They feel indisputably ancient but their lives and experiences speak to our own. They stand tantalisingly on the edges of legend, cloaked in the shadows cast by the heroes and fighters who dominate the landscape, their thoughts and motivations hazy and unclear. I want to draw them out into the light and find the empty spaces in their lives, so that I can fill them in.
Who was Ariadne before Theseus arrived to kill her brother, the Minotaur? Why was Elektra so blindly obsessed by her father, Agamemnon? What did Atalanta feel when she traded her forests for the seas and set sail with the Argonauts, the only woman among fifty men?
These are the questions I want to ask when I find these women in the Homeric epics, in the works of the Athenian playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in the Roman poetry of Ovid. I want to peel back the layers of the stories I think I know so well and find what lies beneath them. I think every novel, whatever the genre, begins with a question. The process of writing it only opens up more. And so we delve deeper, searching for answers.
I assemble the events of their lives, the dramatic decisions upon which everything hinges and I work backwards from their actions. I wonder why they make their choices, what influences come to bear on them, what they might have wanted and hoped for in their lives, and how they sought it.
As the spotlight shifts away from the heroes, I find that I see them differently. The story and all the characters within it change when we’re looking at them from another perspective.
Mythology retellings, re-imaginings or reinterpretations?
I see the word ‘retelling’ used to categorise my novels and others based on Greek mythology, and I use the word myself interchangeably with other descriptions. But it’s a slightly misleading term, I think, suggesting that we are simply telling a story that already exists again.
What makes myth special, in my opinion, is that it’s a place where history meets magic. Myths spring up to explain the world around the storyteller. Somewhere, wrapped up in the tale, is a tiny kernel of truth.
Perhaps it’s a warning of dangers to avoid, as we see a great family fall from prominence due to hubris and greedy ambition. Maybe it preserves some kind of record of a catastrophic conflict, a war or battle that happened somewhere at some time and becomes a legend that might bear little to no resemblance to the real thing.
A myth might tell us where the stars in the night sky have come from. (Ariadne’s wedding crown, plucked from her head and flung into the heavens by her husband Dionysus for example!) It might tell us why the nightingale’s song is so beautiful – a girl in an especially brutal and tragic myth was robbed of her voice, and had it restored by the gods when she was transformed into a bird. The spider, furiously spinning her web, was once a young woman named Arachne who foolishly challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. A devastating flood is attributed to a furious Zeus, an act of divine wrath, sent to wipe out those who have displeased him and usher in a new age of humanity.
A couple of millennia later, we might have scientific explanations for much of the natural phenomena around us. We have detailed archives and records of events. But myths can still offer us an explanation of the things we struggle to understand, and give us a way to articulate our feelings and experiences. We can find the truth in the centre of the myth, if we dig deep enough.
When we reimagine an ancient story – or some parts of it, or some versions of it, or we meld together disparate elements of scattered stories – it serves a new purpose. It doesn’t just call back an ancient world; it reflects the world around us now.
It’s always been so; every storyteller from the ancient world who took these myths and made them their own has changed them for a new audience, a different generation, another set of questions.
So I think to call them re-imaginings or reinterpretations might be more accurate. We aren’t retelling what’s gone before; we are creating something new out of what we already have.
How to write a modern Greek mythology retelling
Using ancient sources to create a modern novel
I’ll find conflicting versions of my heroines’ stories, missing sections and fragmentary episodes. I’ll gather together brief mentions, longer stories, epic poetry, plays and artworks that depict them, and this will help me stitch together a coherent arc for the novel. I’ll choose which parts to keep and which to discard, and decide on a timeline and order that makes sense.
Filtering through the sources helps me to refine my own understanding of the story I want to tell. There is always a temptation to include everything, but through drafting and editing I learn what’s superfluous and potentially alienating. I don’t want to jolt my reader out of the world I’ve created by making them stop every few pages to look up another character name or try to follow a convoluted family tree (there are plenty of them in Greek myth!)
Immersing myself in the ancient sources helps to keep me anchored in the Bronze Age. I’m writing in the twenty-first century as a feminist author, but the women I write about don’t share my values. They inhabit a world where the concept of feminism doesn’t exist. Their world is ruled by savage and merciless immortals, and it’s a brutal world where heroes achieve acclaim through bloody and terrible feats. I never want to impose my views on them, or make them think and behave like modern women.
Using other materials for research and inspiration
I don’t rely solely on written sources. In the British Museum, there is a hydria (a water vessel) dating from around 500 BC. It shows women conversing at a fountain house. They take up the central panel, turning their heads to talk and laugh with one another. It’s a scene of companionship, of productivity as they carry jars of water while they talk, an everyday occurrence but one worth immortalising. On a much smaller panel above, tiny figures of men are fighting one another. I always think of my novels as being like this: the women’s lives at the forefront while the better-known action of the classic Greek myth rages on in the background.
I want to explore their voices, their relationships and their power in these myths that lay the foundation for so many of our stories, these myths which have resonated with every generation for thousands of years and which still command our fascination today. In these ancient stories, we find every facet of ourselves and there are infinite variations and reinventions still to come.
Jennifer Saint joins writers of The Novelry for a Live Q&A this month. Our members enjoy more than 40 live writing classes every month. Join us on a writing course – you’ll receive a very warm welcome.
Jennifer grew up reading Greek mythology and was always drawn to the untold stories hidden within the myths. After thirteen years as a high school English teacher, she wrote her debut novel Ariadne, which tells the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne – the woman who made it happen. Jennifer is now a full-time author, living in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children. All three of her novels have been Sunday Times bestsellers. Jennifer is one of the kind sponsors of The Octopus Scheme at The Novelry.