Top 10 novels inspired by Greek myths | Susan Stokes-Chapman

From James Joyce to Ali Smith and Chigozie Obioma, the archetypal stories of the ancients have inspired some of our best fiction

When we think of Greek myths we think of vengeful gods, legendary heroes, sweeping love affairs and dastardly deeds. They are transformative tales which explore the full range of human experience so it is hardly surprising that writers continually turn to them for inspiration.

Poets such as Dante and Petrarch were enthralled by Greek myth, so too were Chaucer and Milton. Mary Shelley famously incorporated the theme of Prometheus into Frankenstein, and CS Lewis drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his 1956 novel Till We Have Faces. In recent years mythical retellings have been booming, especially those that bring the role of women to the fore – Circe by Madeline Miller was released in 2018 while 2021 saw debuts such as Claire Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta and Rosie Hewlett’s Medusa hit the shelves, and Jennifer Saint’s much-anticipated Elektra is due out later this year.

But retellings come in many forms and guises. In my debut novel Pandora I wanted to explore female agency and the complexities of human nature, all through the richness of a Georgian lens using the myth of Pandora’s box as an anchor. All the works I’ve chosen have interpreted the Greek myths in different ways, but they are all testament to how these ancient stories have got under our skin.

1 House of Names by Colm Tóibín
This intricately plotted novel draws on a number of Greek myths, chief among them those found in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. It is the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, beginning with the brutal sacrifice of their 16-year-old daughter, Iphigenia. A deeply human tale of a warring family, the story is steeped in violence and cruelty but Tóibín brings empathy and depth to the characters, offering a nuanced understanding of their anger, fear, hatred and guilt.

2 Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
An arresting novel in verse which brings the Greek monster Geryon (who features in the 10th Labour of Heracles) into a modern-day setting. Drawing on surviving fragments of the lyric poet Stesichorus’s work Geryoneis, this is a moving coming-of-age tale about love and yearning which is whimsical, sad, and a fascinating take on a character overlooked in favour of the larger-than-life man who slayed him.

3 Ulysses by James Joyce
Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey is reimagined in 1900s Dublin, chronicling in minute detail a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom, his friend Stephen Dedalus and his long-suffering wife Molly. An epic work in its own right, the novel is divided into episodes that roughly correspond to those in the original poem. It is both brilliant and infuriating in its sheer scale and narrative styling, and one of the greatest literary achievements of the 20th century.

Ali Smith.
Ali Smith. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

4 Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
The myth of Iphis and Ianthe is one of those rare Greek myths that ends happily. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where a girl is raised as a boy to avoid her father’s wrath and falls in love with another girl. Later, her gender is changed by the goddess Isis, allowing them to marry. Smith takes this story into modern-day Inverness in the guise of Anthea and Robin, and deals with gender, transformation and acceptance of self. It’s a small book at only 176 pages but it is vibrant, joyful, funny and poetic.

5 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
This critically acclaimed novel is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, told from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan queen who is captured and forced to become the concubine of Achilles. It is a brave, powerful story about survival and resilience, which in no way shies away from the horrors of war and the cruelty women suffered at the hands of their enslavers. There are harrowing scenes including child murder, gang rape and suicide making it a ruthless story, but one that should not be ignored.

6 An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
Another reinterpretation of the Odyssey. Obioma tackles the myth by lifting it out of Ancient Greece and into Umuahia, Nigeria. When young poultry farmer Chinonso sees a woman about to jump off a bridge his whole life is set off course, and the aftermath of this event takes him further and further away from his dreams. Told from the perspective of Chinonso’s “chi” (a guardian spirit of Igbo cosmology), this novel is unlike any other. It is a thought-provoking and challenging tale exploring themes of love and sacrifice, vulnerability and misfortune, and the unyielding power of fate.

Natalie Haynes.
Natalie Haynes. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

7 A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes brilliantly retells the story of the Trojan war from an all-female perspective. She presents a kaleidoscopic view of the war and the women involved in a series of episodes narrated by Calliope, the Greek muse of epic poetry. A fresh take on the Iliad brimming with wit and atmosphere.

8 The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin
Loosely inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this is a genre-bending novel which centres on rock star Aida, who finds herself trapped in a destructive love affair. The novel is split into two parts in homage to the myth’s thematic origins, and echoes the original’s message about the dangers of using a lover as a muse. A wholly original story that explores themes of jealousy, trauma and the crippling effects of fame with visceral panache.

9 The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
Dark academia meets Greek myth in this literary thriller set at Cambridge University. The story follows Mariana Andros who returns to her alma mater after her niece’s friend is murdered. Mariana suspects that charismatic classics professor Edward Fosca is responsible, and that the girl’s death is linked to a secret society of young female students known as The Maidens, named after Persephone, the goddess of death. It’s a twisty tale, with lots of red herrings to keep you guessing, that is also a clever tribute to Greek tragedy.

10 Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
This story of Ariadne, princess of Crete and daughter of King Minos, reimagines the classic tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. It is the compelling story of her whole life rather than one event in it, and by widening the reader’s perspective we are skilfully given an insight not just into the novel’s captivating heroine but the stories of other women such as Medusa, Semele, Pasiphaë and Phaedra. The men, too, are well drawn, allowing for a deeper insight into why they act as they do without excusing their failings. Ariadne’s relationship with Dionysus is fascinating and the alternate perspective of Theseus a refreshing take in light of past misogynistic retellings. Beautifully written and utterly immersive.

• Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman is published by Vintage. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Susan Stokes-Chapman

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