Friday Fiction: Ancient Texts, Modern Retellings by Alex Snider

There are a lot of genres out there. A lot of sub-genres. Too many some would argue. I don't know where I stand on that, or why I even wrote it but I did so let's just move on. One sub-genre of literary fiction is parallel fiction: where one author takes a character, scene, or remnant from a previous work and writes a new work around that element. Think of it like a music cover but for books. Sort of. There are good examples (the list below), bad examples (the garbage spewing forth from the gutter outside of publishing houses mashing up monsters and Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ect.); parallel fiction taken from loooooong ago written work (the list below) and from books written by authors of whom we have photos of (March by Geraldine Brooks = Little Women, Wide Sargossa Sea by Jean Rhys = Jane Eyre, The Hours by Michael Cunningham = Mrs Dalloway). Done right, it can be a thing of beauty, shed new light on an old story and refresh interest in the original work. The following are novels that have been built on ancient texts and mythologies, from Homer to the Bible by some of our favourite authors:

Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston -- I'm not really into the Bible as a religious text, given that I'm not really into religion (*warning* understatement alert) and the violence, oppression and bigotry that it has been known to perpetrate (*warning* VAST understatement alert) but the bible as a fictiony historic text? Kinda cool. Even more cool? When one of my favouritest people who ever put pen to paper (Hurston) picks one of the stories (Exodus) and gives it new life. She takes the tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and rejigs it to stand in for the history of slavery, abolition and Black people in America. She mixes in Black folklore, colloquialisms, songs and humour as well as fully fleshing out not only the heroes but also the Pharaoh and other villains, all while keeping true to the original text. I want to lick her brain.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson -- Holy cow, guys, when I picked this up I was not expecting to be punched in the gut with emotion (blech, I'm terrible -- no Anne Carson, that's for sure). Carson takes Geryon, a red winged monster from the myth of Herakles (ugh, I really hate that dickbag -- such a brute, not even an interesting brute) and builds around him a novel in verse about his life from the age of five. She sets him up in reality but not (he's still the 'monster' of mythology), has him suffer abuse and torment; find himself in art as a photographer and in love affairs notably with a charming young man named Herakles. These are the over-used words that often describe novels (especially those by women) that are perfect for Autobiography of Red: Haunting, sensual, passionate, tour-de-force (ok, that one is usually reserved for men authors), tender, heart-wrenching, poignant, profound, rich, whimsical, disturbing (used for lady-writers like Flannery and Shirley) and erudite.

Ransom by David Malouf -- Like Carson, Malouf takes a single episode from Greek Mythology, one that I would have thought would have scores of commentary, retellings and just a shit load of individual mentions within Greek mythology (considering how every frakking poet/historian/playwright/lyricist wrote about the same myths over and over again -- if I never read another account of Herakles' stupid labours I'll never ask for anything again). Here we have, in my opinion, the most sincere and fascinating and touching moments from the whole mammoth that is The Iliad and no one else thinks to say "hey, this is pretty unusual for both Greek mythology and history, must investigate/fictionalize further". And I'm not talking about how strange it is that the Greeks (and Trojans to an we-know-next-to-nothing-about-them extent) worship gods who are clearly just huge assholes. I'm actually talking about Book 24, when Priam goes to Achilles, his enemy, the killer of his son (of so many sons), goes to him behind the Achean lines (the Trojans had been at war with the Acheans for ten years at this point) alone save for an old herald and his mules to ransom his son Hector's body. It's a scene that is so uncharacteristic of the whole poem, of the times really -- couldn't really see any sort of WWI Christmas soccer game happening -- and the tenderness and grief that both men are feeling is so tangible, so palpable it just doesn't fit with the 500+ other pages of bloody, disemboweling, rage-fueled battle. I'm so glad that it was Malouf who took on the story and fleshed it out because he is such a master of restrained sorrow, loneliness and loss (see: every word he's ever written).

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood -- A book from Canongate's awesome series of revamped myths by future Toronto mayoral candidate, Margaret Atwood, which takes Odysseus' (of The Odyssey fame) wife, Penelope and gives her a proper story. I really love Penelope. I love Odysseus, too, but Penelope is where it's at. She's sharp and loyal and no wilting flower. Considering that the majority of mortal women in Greek myth are raped, turned into trees (or snakes or birds or cows), tricked into doing something terrible (usually to their children), doing something horrible (usually to their children) because they're irrational, emotional messes, punished severely when they act with any sort of agency of their own, Penelope is a rarity. She's not killed, she's not raped, she has her own mind and cunning but she isn't punished for it. In fact, she excels: she keeps all those pesky suitors at bay for TWENTY years in a Scheherazade-like fashion, raises a damn fine son, runs a tight ship with loyal servants and stays all *pure* for Odysseus (same cannot be said for him but there were shockingly different standards for men). Penelope is the bomb. People still say 'the bomb', right?

The Myth of Izanagi and Izanami by Natsuo Kirino -- Also from Canongate's Myth Series, Kirino, writer of detective fiction (Out, Grotesque, Real World), takes on the Shinto creationist myth of Izanami and her husband/brother Izanagi. Reminiscent of the story Eurydice and Orpheus from Greek mythology, Izanami dies in childbirth and Izanagi makes a failed attempt to rescue her from the underworld. Like Orpheus, Izanagi looks back at his wife/sister (men and directions, amirite?!) and, whoosh, back to the underworld for Izanami. Unlike Eurydice, Izanami is pissed and she decides to kill 1000 people every day. Izanagi, already recovered from damning his beloved to the underworld, laughs maniacally and says that he will create 1005 people every day! Muhhahahahaha! Izanami loses! So do the 1000 humans, and really the remaining 5 who assumably lose everyone they love at some point and have to live in constant fear of being on the chopping block the next day. But the dude, Izanagi wins! Hurray for dudes winning! Weird!  

*MYSTERY* I can't actually tell if this book exists. I think (you might want to sit down for this, oh you're already sitting? Maybe lie down?) the Internet may have lied to me! Gasp! Quick, some one get the smelling salts! Anyway, it's still a cool myth and it'd be cool if she did write about it for the Canongate series so, I'm leaving this in. Think of it as a Secret-like excercise -- I'm putting it out there in the universe in hopes of getting what I want. I'm secreting, if you will.

Grendel by John Gardner -- Taking the character of the monster Grendel from the early English epic poem, Beowulf, Gardner sets about doing what I kinda love: turning Grendel, tormentor of the mead hall of HroĆ°gar, tearer of limbs, eater of flesh (I'm assuming these things, it's been a while since I read Beowulf and it was a crappy translation but shouldn't all fearsome monsters engage in a little sparagmos and human BBQ?) into a sympathetic character whom one can't help but feel for, maybe even identify with? Besides wasn't his mother Angelina Jolie? Just kidding, I'm sure Angelina is a great mum.

Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin -- Lavinia in Virgil's Aeneid was the last wife of Aeneas, mythological Trojan founder of Rome. She is a minor character, making it briefly into the last six chapters of the poem (her biggest "star" moment comes in the 7th chapter when her hair catches on fire. Some kind of omen, that). Le Guin takes her and like the other authors on this list before her, she molds Lavinia and fleshes her out into a fully formed character. What's really neato about this novel is that Lavinia has the consciousness to know that without Virgil she wouldn't have a life (although, Lavinia does show up in Dante's Inferno as well) and has conversations with him. According to some historians (Livy, primarily) she actually ruled the Latins for time, which is pretty rad. Go Lavinia! Girl power! (I'm the worst!)

Can you guys tell that I'm getting ready to go back to school? All this talk of myths and scholarly pursuits? I'm so excited! Like Kristen Wiig's SNL character who gets really excited about things excited. I might crash through a window at any point! Jazz hands! Anyway, have a lovely fall weekend (for those of you in the Western Hemisphere)!

Download this amazing music parallel: Hot Chip covering Paul Simon's Graceland.


Photo: Poor Pentheus getting torn apart by his Bacchus-mad mama and auntie (mythological ladies be buggin' 'cept for Penelope)  from

Alex Snider is a Toronto-based writer, a Contributing Editor for the Little Red Umbrella and the co-creator of the What Fresh Hell Is This? blog, which is where a version of this post originally appeared. You can read the rest of her posts here.


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