“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”Circe Madeline Miller
When it comes to Greek mythology people tend to fall into two distinct categories, people who know everything and those who know nothing. With such an expansive range of tales, legends and epics to choose from, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by complexities of the Greek myth universe. For a lot of us, our Greek myth journey may have begun with the explosive saga of Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan, as we all clung to the hope a mysterious God or Goddess might emerge and claim us as their demi-god progeny. Riordan’s classics offer a solid foundation to be sure, but the trend of Greek themed literature has certainly expanded astronomically in recent years and we now have swathes of retellings and adaptions to choose from – whether you are just beginning your education into all things Greek myth or simply relishing in the comfort of already well-loved characters and stories There is now something for everyone.
My personal interest (and later obsession) with Greek mythology came slightly later than the preteen/Riordan era of classics education, and I found myself almost playing catch-up on one of the biggest sections of history and literature there is, and suffice to say it was daunting. But what a joy it is to be able to immerse oneself into something as gripping and fascinating as Greek mythology! Where does one begin? Homer? Euripides? Ovid? Sophocles? The list is endless. I chose a slightly easier option to begin my studies – Stephen Fry. Here are some of my favourite mythology novelisations and retellings to really throw yourself into the world of Ancient Greek myth;
Mythos by Stephen Fry
Whether you’re already a Greek mythology expert or just an eager-to-learn newbie (like myself), Mythos explores the crucial and the minor tales of Greek myth, from the union of Gaia and Uranos to the ill-fated infatuation of Echo with Narcissus. Fry’s retellings are both insightfully educational and witty, offering an easily digestible account of the classic tales of Greek mythology. My favourite aspect of Frys writing was his ability to humanise the Ancient Greek hero’s and gods , making these infamous characters more relate bale and dare I say, normal than previous retellings. Fans of Fry’s mythology saga can continue their Greek travels in his subsequent books Heroes (2017) and Troy (2020), which chronical the trials and tribulations of heroic figures like Theseus, Heracles, Perseus and Achilles, as well as tracing the chronology of the Trojan war from beginning to brutal end. Fry’s books are a must-read, and I hold them particularly dear to my own heart as the catalyst for my later mythology obsession.
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Song of Achilles is the novel which by this point needs no introduction, its popularity has sky-rocketed in recent years and for a novel published over a decade ago in 2011, it’s longevity as a cult phenomenon within contemporary Greek mythology literature is exceptional. Famed Achilles, beloved Achilles, fierce Achilles. The hero in the hearts of many for his bravery and sacrifice on the battlefield at Troy. But we meet the awe-inspiring Achilles when he is little more than a preteen. When shy and awkward Patroclus is banished to live with King Peleus as a young boy, he quickly catches the attention of the young prince, destined for a life of greatness as foretold by the fates. Miller weaves a beautifully emotional story of dear friendship blossoming into an intimate relationship driven by absolute loyalty and devotion to one another. Patroclus warily follows Achilles on his destined path to war at Troy, remaining firmly by his side throughout the gruesome battle and beyond.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller has quickly become a household name within any discussion surrounding Greek mythology retellings, and Circe certainly lives up to the hype inspired by her debut novel Song of Achilles. Circe, an exiled ocean nymph (not to be confused with the power-hungry Game of Thrones character) was a sorceress and daughter of the Titan sun god Helios. Banished to live on an island as punishment for viciously transfiguring a local girl into a monstrous dea monster with her magic, Miller explores this villainized female character in a new light. In her solitude Circe lives in harmony with the natural world and the creatures around her, cultivating a life of peace. But intruders beware, Circe masters her craft of sorcery with potions and incantations, particularly favouring transfiguring unsuspecting visitors to her island into swine. This unfortunate fate befalls the crew of the battle-weary Odysseus on his long journey home from Troy, whose arrival upsets the peace Circe has spent years cultivating. Once again Miller’s prose and talent for imbuing old tales with a new sense of vitality and magic comes to the forum, making this novel a fan favourite of many today.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
The infamous Trojan War, a brutal, bloody and exhaustingly long battle that has given fame and infamy to a litany of heroes and warriors; Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Odysseus, a strikingly large wooden horse. But what of the women? The beautiful Helen, forever reduced to a vain seductress – she caused the whole thing, right?! Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, the wife and daughters of Zeus whose rivalry embroiled the unassuming Helen into their petty feud by promising her to Paris. Songs have been sung to honour Achilles but what about Penthesilia, the Queen of the Amazons murdered and mourned by Achilles himself? These are just a few of the women Haynes shines a light on, telling their stories and honouring their places among those heroes at Troy.
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
The Minotaur – the body of a man with the grotesque head of a bull, the result of his Pasiphae’s ill-fated affair with Poseidon’s beautiful white bull. His ferocity instilled fear into the subjects of far-reaching lands, yearly devouring a dozen young sacrifices to ensure King Minos’ continued rule. That is until the great Theseus arrives and slays the beast and sails into the sunset a hero. Right? Well in a sense. No slaying could be done without the crucial aid of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and sister to the dreaded Minotaur. It is Ariadne who offers Theseus the thread to navigate the vast labyrinth which contains the Minotaur, it is Ariadne who abandons her life and family for the love of the hero Theseus. And what does Ariadne get in return for her skill and sacrifice? Abandoned casually and cruelly on an island alone by Thesus (are we noticing a theme here?). This retelling offers an insightful look into a character where in most other retellings it is often ignored.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
We return to the Trojan War, but as with Haynes A Thousand Ships, we do not celebrate the bloody murder soldiers and violent sacking of cities and sing the praises of the heroes etc, we instead look to the so often overlooked character of Briseis. The war prize and concubine of Achilles. A former Queen of Lyrnessus reduced to a slave, forced to serve the man who butchered her family and destroyed her home, Barker explores the life of this complicated women, questioning whether in Greek myths were women’s silent or silenced. A great queen reduced to a pawn played between men with something to prove in this book she is finally given her own voice in this compelling retelling. This book has proved hugely popular with a focus on of life of women within the Greek camp at Troy, of the relationships and bonds forged between her fellow captives, connected through their suffering. Winner of the Dublin Literary Award and Shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, this novel is not one to miss.
The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
A new highly anticipated sequel to her hit The Silence of the Girls, Barker is back to further explore the life of Brises. The war is over, Achilles is dead, Patroclus is dead and Briseis is alone. Pregnant with Achilles’ child under the rule of Neoptolemus (Achille’s son from a former affair) Briseis now lives shoulder to shoulder amongst the captured women of the fallen Troy. The Trojan world has been turned upside down and the former royal family members; the widowed Queen Hecabe, cursed prophet Cassandra, Hector’s widow Andromache and of course the newly reclaimed Helen, all come to the fore front in this epic novel. Tensions flare as this mournful group find their way in the wake of such violent tragedy before they are forced to leave Troy behind forever.