Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Abi Ramsay
Like many of us, I am a bookworm. My genres of choice have changed over the years, shaped by fantasy for much of my formative decade – Ingo by Helen Dunmore, springing to mind – before a move to dystopian as I became a teenager. This again matured, swapping out The Hunger Games for Rebecca, as I started focusing on the structure of novels, and how the word choices an author used could make or break a narrative. There was always one genre I steered clear of though – historical romance.
Loved by many, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel’s historical novels have never been books I have been inclined to read. Even the adaptations of The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall respectively did not change my mind about historical fiction. However, the recent trend of Ancient Greek rewrites, one of the oldest versions of historical fiction, has surprised me. This has not just become a trend I like, but has produced books I devour.
Ancient Greek narratives told tales of great heroes, who battled monsters and conquered lands. They usually expand for decades, with a singular journey lasting much of the adult life of the hero, as they left a path of vanquished conquests behind them. The Ancient Greeks recounted these stories for their valuable and meaningful lessons. They also showed the possible wrath of the Gods, as well as presenting influential figures who became stuff of legend – Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Theseus… the MEN who changed the course of history. Because, although many of these tales had a central female figure, who would want to hear about them?
That is a question that many modern writers have been mocking, as the trend of rewriting Greek literature from a female perspective has grown in strength. Popularised by Margaret Atwood in her 2005 The Penelopiad, a rewrite of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective, we can see women as adding autonomy to their forgotten heroines. Pat Barker’s 2018 The Silence of The Girls, and newest addition The Women of Troy published last year, retell the story of The Iliad and the Trojan War, entirely from the perspective of the girls the Greek’s enslaved.
Most recently, Madeline Miller, Natalie Haynes and Jennifer Saint have been exploring individual women who have been forgotten – although pivotal in the plots of the great legends. The individual explorations of Circe, Ariadne and Jocasta (The Children of Jocasta) explore the bravery, struggle, love, and loss of these immortalised figures, as well as providing autonomy and heartbreak to their interactions with the Greek heroes. Saint humanises Medusa, and exposes Theseus in Ariadne, as Miller shows Odysseus’ true colours in Circe, all while they both explore and present two complex heroines.
So, although I have changed my opinion on historical romance, I’m still waiting for some of the later eras to entice me. The trend of Ancient Greek rewrites is one I love however, and if the constant exposure to Greek names means I no longer butcher the pronunciation, what’s not to like?
If you are interested in reading some adaptations of Greek mythology after reading this article, check out this link: https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/best-books-based-on-mythology