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7 Books That Reinvent Mythology

Pop Culture

August 30, 2022

Mythology is a staple of childhood. However, in the stories we are often told, it's easy to forget the patriarchal bias of these myths. The following books give a voice to the voiceless of mythology, ancient and new, and challenge our understanding of which stories need to be heard.

1. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

The title makes it clear who the book is narrated by, none other than Ariadne herself. Traditionally, the story goes that Theseus abandoned Ariadne on Naxos after she ran away with him because Dionysus asked him to. This book makes Theseus the one that abandons her on a whim, and Ariadne the one who forges a new life for herself on a forgotten island.

Dionysus is not the god that claims her, but the god that falls in love with her. The formal and elegant prose creates a stirring tale that asks who we proclaim to be the heroes of a story and who we relegate to the sidelines.

This book further ponders the balance between repetitive immortality and the small pleasures of everyday existence. The end takes an unexpected twist accompanied by a graceful writing style that takes us through Ariadne’s thrilling, uncertain journey.

Books that retell myths are plentiful, but this is one of the good ones that remains memorable, truly putting Theseus to the sidelines in the process of recreating the world of Ancient Greece. Another breathtaking book by Jennifer Saint is Elektra, retelling the Trojan War from the perspective of Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra and his daughter Elektra.

2. The Girl Who Fell Beneath The Sea by Axie Oh

This book retells the myth of Shim Jeong. For those who don’t know, Shim Jeong is a traditional myth that emphasizes filial piety in Korea. Shim Jeong sacrifices herself to the sea for her father, but in Axie Oh’s book, the title is a misnomer.

The character that drives this exciting tale is Mina, whose brother is in love with Shim Jeong. In a world where the Sea God doesn’t protect them from storms and raids, every year, the most beautiful girl in the village is sacrificed to the sea. Instead, Mina takes Shim Jeong’s Place and is catapulted into a world of ghosts and monsters as well as a mysterious young lord who captures her spirit. She continually attempts to reach the Sea Emperor’s Palace, taking an unexpected journey of love and self-realization in the process.

Mina is no passive heroine in this new version of Shim Jeong, her sacrifice gives her choices for the first time in life, and these choices are all part of an intriguing story of not only a girl finding herself but the misguided myths and mishaps that shape traditions. This book asks not only whether we choose to define our lives, but whether we as a society are willing to leave the tread path and carve our own just world under the sea.

3. Twisted Tales

Disney stories aren’t technically myths, but they are still classic stories that have been ingrained in the minds of young and old people alike. These are dark retellings, asking what would happen if one critical moment in these fairy tales went wrong for everything from Frozen to Cinderella. These are intended for a younger audience and the degree of darkness varies, but they are definitely always entertaining reads.

A reader looking for nuanced character exploration won’t find it here, but as an entertaining escape into an unexpected fairy tale world, this book more than succeeds. The twists in the story carry the reader through all the tedious bits of the story. Want to find out what happened if Aladdin never found the lamp or Ariel never defeated Ursula? The answers are there in the pages.

4. Galatea by Madeline Miller

In terms of retelling myths, Madeline Miller’s books are impeccable. From Circe to Patroclus to Galatea, she tells lyrical, poignant tales of noble transgressors. Her shortest work, Galatea, tells the infamous story of Pygmalion from the statue’s perspective.

If you didn’t catch the title the first time, you probably forgot the statue’s name was Galatea, but this book doesn’t let you forget it. Pygmalion aims to turn the perfect stone into flesh, but in the process, forgets that smooth marble is perfect, but humans will always be imperfect.

When Galatea turns out to be a person with her own desires, he becomes the epitome of controlling men, and the rest of the book is Galatea’s attempt to free herself and her daughter. Galatea comes to life in this short story in the process of liberating herself from being Pygmalion's statue.

5. Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe, on the other hand, isn’t forgotten, she’s the villain. The one who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs and promptly vanishes off the page. Yet, Circe is the witch continually tossed aside by everyone she begins to care about.

Still, this book of lyrical and elegant prose breathes life into Aeaea. If there are any flaws, it is that those with a minimal knowledge of mythology or have not reviewed their minor characters might find it challenging to keep track of the fast-paced plot, but the atmosphere more than makes up for these flaws in this memorable work. This book is a vivid reminder that the stories of so-called witches are magical for a reason.

6. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is another story of forbidden love. We all know how it ends, but the minor, voiceless characters truly speak up in this book. The flaws with plot are typically complemented by engaging writing, though it can be overwrought at times.

In terms of plot and originality, this book more than succeeds, really succeeding in resurrecting the ancient world in ways that feel modern. Surprisingly, though, the root of the story comes from Plato. This is a reminder that retellings have been present throughout history as long as we know where to look. Regardless, The Song of Achilles is truly musical in reinventing a story that has been oft-retold.

7. Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane

Another fascinating book, Wrath Goddess Sing, imagines Achilles as a transgender woman, and takes her on a rollicking ride of speaking to gods and goddesses, while completely flipping the enemy, heroes, and victims of the Trojan war. It's exciting enough to keep the reader turning the pages in their mind even with the book away.

Despite the inevitable tragedy, the way the novel switches perspectives between goddesses and humans completely organically, truly depicts how humans become marionettes in the hands of the divine. Though there are parts where the plot becomes confusing, the compelling character will keep you reading with your eyes wide open.

These feminist retellings of classic Greek and East Asian myths are absolutely worth the read. Discover the untold layers in ancient tales through this selection of reinvented myths!

Ananya Vinay
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Writer since Jul, 2022 · 9 published articles

Ananya Vinay is a freshman at Pomona College, who is from Fresno, California. She is a budding scientist and writer, as well as the author of a poetry collection, Dewdrops on the Mind, with work forthcoming or published in the Ice Lolly Review, Apprentice Writer, Teen Ink, and New Scene Magazine. When she’s not writing, you can find her with her nose in a book, inventing stories, or sometimes arguing with her younger brother.