It’s safe to say that the reinterpretation of Greek myths has had a good year in publishing this year. Two of my favourite authors, Colm Toibin (Brooklyn, Nora Webster, The Testament of Mary) and Natalie Haynes (The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, The Amber Fury) have published novels which reinterpret established Greek myths. This led me to think about what the value of reinterpreting myths is, and what myths can do for our society.
Toibin’s novel ‘House of Names’ was a re-imagining of the story of the House of Atreus (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra & co), whose story is told in plays such as ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘Electra’. Whilst he doesn’t change the main elements of the story: -(sorry for the spoilers) Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill Agamemnon, Orestes disappears, Orestes returns & he and Electra kill their mother he does add a significant amount of story line. Instead of Pylades, Orestes has Leander as a companion, and is kept in a boarding-school-cum-prison from which he must escape. ‘House of Names’ also concentrates much more on the psychology & thought behind Orestes and Electra, who are confused, repressed & have internalized so much… something hinted at but not fully realised by the original plays.
Haynes, instead, chose to explore the stories of Oedipus and Antigone with her novel, ‘The Children of Jocasta.’ This story focused on two characters in the text who are often overlooked: Jocasta and Ismene, their two stories running in parallel. This novel was a reinterpretation in a big way. Although I don’t want to ruin it if you haven’t read it (although as Haynes says, you’ve had 2000 years to read it…), the end of the story is quite different from the established text of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Antigone.’ She shunts Antigone to the side and Ismene takes a deserved centre stage, Jocasta too is at the centre of her story- a change from the few lines she gets in the original text. The plague also took a more central role in the peripeteia of one character (I’m attempting to avoid spoilers- read the book if you want to know!), and some of the story line was changed by Haynes to make her version of the story of the House of Laius.
Both novels have been humanised by their authors. In ‘House of Names’ the gods do not appear, and neither do they in ‘Children of Jocasta’. Haynes even goes so far as to make the ‘Sphinx’ a band of robbers, something which works well within the structure of the Oedipus storyline. By removing the pagan religious elements of the stories they are telling, both authors have managed to remove one element of Greek tragedy which is slightly inaccessible to a modern audience. Without a complete understanding of Greek religion, uncoloured by the influence of Judeo-Christianity or other more modern religions, it is difficult to know precisely what the implications of the involvement of the gods would have been for the audience. Thereby, by removing this mysterious element which isn’t that relevant to the culture we are reading these novels in today, both authors have reinvented, re-imagined and reinterpreted the stories they are telling to be more suitable to the audience.
The thing that makes myths different is that no individual owns them. They’re free, and out there for creators to take them and remould them to convey a certain idea to an audience. It’s this remoulding and creation though, in my opinion, that keeps these myths alive. Once we stop viewing myths as ‘frozen in time’, then we can start thinking more clearly about what lessons myths have for our society, and start using them as our own stories. By tweaking them, rearranging them, and adding to them, we can update them and make them more resonant to a modern day audience. Once they’re resonant to an audience who may have become disinterested in the classics, whether through never having access to classics or by being forced into doing it, then the audience will be more receptive to the story- this means more people can enjoy the story. It’s also important to remember, in my opinion, that in the case of oral poems (such as the Iliad and the Odyssey), bards would probably often add their own lyrics to the poem, and then this would be picked up and carried on. The bards were constantly embroidering and reinterpreting myths, so surely by reinterpreting myths ourselves we are contributing to a tradition of adding and re-imagining. Virgil too, was one of these myth ’embroiderers’; he took Aeneas, a character in the Iliad, and ran with it- using him as his hero for his founding of Rome myth.
This isn’t a rallying cry to do away with the old myths though; wisdom from the past can sometimes resonate far more than wisdom from the present. No, this is rather more a rallying cry for more people to play with myths and stories, and to see what happens, and what we can learn. We need to keep the stories we tell in our culture flexible, in other words.