Laura Kart Noell writes about the way new works of art and popular culture revisit traditional myths.
The gods are always with us. We have not let them go. Every year, new works of art and popular culture revisit traditional myths. Even those that have lost their religious power are part of the common cultural stock. They inform our imaginations, and act as a shorthand for shared values and ideas. It’s a rare individual raised in a Western culture who is not aware of the symbolic implications of apples and serpents or of the mixed blessing of the Midas touch. Yet reliance on those familiar icons can easily descend into cliché. The modern writer who retells an ancient myth must surprise readers, reexamine the story, show its contemporary relevance, or make readers question their preconceptions.
Any of the basic elements of a myth in fiction–plot, character, narrative voice, setting, or theme–can and have been changed. Revising a myth is nothing new. Modern scholarship has shown that most myths have existed for millennia in multiple “tellings,” not just in the canonical texts. The biblical story of the flood, for example, is antedated by variants of an almost identical, but polytheistic, version of the tale in The Epic of Gilgamesh, fragments of which exist in multiple languages scattered throughout the Middle East and Anatolia.
Modern writers who are inspired by traditional myth commonly retell the story in its original context with a contemporary perspective. Recent examples include The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason, and Ransom, by David Malouf. Other authors bring the ancient heroes, gods and goddesses, and their stories into the modern world, which is the approach taken in books like John Banville’s The Infinities, Fated, by S.G. Browne, Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota, and one of my favorites, Steven Sherrill’s 2000 novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. Why do modern readers continue to welcome these retellings? Partially it’s just the familiarity, the “once upon a time-ness” of a tale retold. Like small children who want to read the same book over and over again, we enjoy knowing the characters, the plots, and its outcome.
The writer who brings a new angle to an old tale often selects just one part of the original, as David Malouf does in Ransom, retelling not the whole story of The Iliad, but zeroing in on one episode near the end of the poem, Priam’s pilgrimage to Achilles to ransom the body of his son. Malouf surprises the reader with a new character, Somax, a Trojan carter, who conveys Priam to the Greek camp. Although Somax is new, familiar details from The Iliad remain: the king’s determination to make the short but dangerous trip, the assistance of Hermes, who guides king and carter safely to the Greek camp. In The Iliad, Priam rides in a grand vehicle driven by the royal herald. In Ransom, Priam rejects the pomp and finds an ordinary cart and carter. As he and Somax travel from Troy to the Greek encampment, both characters grow. In permitting Somax to speak to the king, Malouf introduces a new point of view into the story of the Trojan War, that of an ordinary man.
In The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Mark Twain retells the story of creation not through the abstract, omniscient narrative voice of Genesis, but through the voices of the first two human creatures. Many feminist writers have retold traditional myths from the point of view of a female character like Penelope, Cassandra, or Sita. In The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason creates forty-four allegedly lost and exhumed fragmentary alternatives to the Homeric version. The Cyclops relates his version of the encounter with Odysseus. An unnamed slave recounts his fall from princeling to bondman. Mason explicates the tale with a faux footnote: “The narrator of this story is apparently Eumaios, the swineherd who sheltered Odysseus when he first returned to Ithaca and later helped him kill the suitors…” Still, Mason counts on the reader’s knowledge of the Homeric version of The Odyssey as he deviates from it in many of the putative fragments: Penelope dies before Odysseus returns, another Odysseus usurps his place, he marries Nausicaa and settles down with her, Agamemnon is not such a bad guy.
Hermes narrates John Banville’s novel, The Infinities and reports on the escapades of Zeus and Pan, who interject themselves into the lives of a family reunited around the deathbed of their patriarch, Adam Godley (like many others, Banville mixes mythologies in his tale). Many details tell us that the world they inhabit is much like ours, yet others make it clear that this world is part of an alternate universe. Godley’s son drives the family car, “one of the original Salsol models,” and “[b]ellicose Sweden” goes “on the warpath again in yet another expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbours.” Banville makes use of the familiar characterizations of the Greek gods and oft-repeated stories about them, and then he surprises the reader with a variant. Hermes is, as usual, a bit of a trickster and the intermediary between gods and humans, but he’s also nearly omnipotent and omniscient, not qualities usually associated with him. In this world, the Greek gods conform to the readers’ expectations and undermine them.
In The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill, the Minotaur is entirely present to the human beings in the North Carolina backwater town where he works as a line cook at a place called Grub’s Rib. In the opening scene, M, as he is called, is taking a cigarette break from the hellish heat of the kitchen, where he works the “hot line” despite the difficulty he has with binocular vision over his broad nose. The restaurant workers all seem to accept him. He’s just another down and outer surviving in an inhospitable world. When M encounters a little boy in a drugstore who wonders what is wrong with him, the father promises to “look him up in the encyclopedia” when they get home. As the story unfolds, M encounters others like himself, vestiges of the glorious age of myth, working in side shows and convenience stores in the American South. The ordinary people are shown to have a remarkable ability to accept the extraordinary when it appears in their daily lives.
Like the power of the Minotaur, the power of traditional myth may have weakened but has not disappeared. New books, plays, poems, films, music, and visual arts retelling traditional myths will come out next week, or tomorrow, or the day after, and new audiences will join the old in rediscovering the pleasure of recognition and surprise inherent in an old tale made new.
Banville, John. The Infinities. Vintage International, 2009.
Malouf, David. Ransom. Vintage International, 2009.
Mason, Zachary. The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel. Picador, 2011.
Sherrill, Steven. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel. Picador, 2000.