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Literature

Two Retellings of Ancient Greek Myths

January 2, 2022

It seems as if retellings of ancient Greek myths are suddenly all the rage in publishing these days, but in fact, retellings of these powerful stories have always fascinated artists, writers, and audiences since they first began to be shared, in the oral poetry tradition and in ancient Greek drama. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint and Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood are just two of the retellings, which also happen to be debut novels, that focus on the female characters, and sisters specifically, in ancient Greek myths, offering readers a chance to hear from the unheard voices of the young women in these timeless tales.

Both books are entertaining novels, but Saint’s Ariadne is the more emotionally-charged of the two and the most at ease incorporating the fantastical aspects of the myths with the realistic portrayal of the characters’ emotions.

Ariadne, Princess of Crete, grows up greeting the dawn from her beautiful dancing floor and listening to her nursemaids stories of gods and heroes. Beneath her golden palace, however, echo the ever-present hoofbeats of her brother, the Minotaur, a monster who demands blood sacrifice. When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives to vanquish the beast, Ariadne sees in his green eyes not a threat but an escape. Defying the gods, betraying her family and country, and risking everything for love, Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur. Ariadnes decision is fateful but the myth is not exactly clear on whether it ensures her happy ending. Saint’s retelling fills in the blanks in Ariadne’s story while also highlighting Phaedra, her beloved younger sister left behind in Crete.

Saint’s Ariadne places the forgotten women of Greek mythology back at the heart of the story, as they strive for a better world. The characters evolve on their journey as we see what happened to Ariadne after Theseus and how Phaedra’s tragic story unfolds. Saint’s handling of the god of wine, Dionysus, and his role in the story is especially well-done.

Heywood’s Daughters of Sparta focuses on another pair of sisters, Klytemnestra (spelled with a K in the book rather than a C) and Helen, and how their respective stories unfold. The book opens with the day to day lives of the sisters as young princesses of high birth and unrivaled beauty, but still hemmed in by the rules and customs of their time and country, in spite of their life of privilege. While still only girls, the sisters are separated and married to foreign kings of their father’s choosing- Klytemnestra to the powerful Agamemnon and Helen to his brother Menelaos. Yet even as Queens, each is only expected to do two things- birth an heir and embody the meek, demure nature that is expected of women.

Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood. Photo: Amazon

The book highlights how Klytemnestra and Helen push against the constraints of their society to carve new lives for themselves, and then face the consequences of their actions. The violence of the Trojan War, so well-known from Homers Iliad, is shown from Helen’s point of view, which keeps the reader at a greater distance from the warriors and their gruesome deaths while focusing on the claustrophobic experience of the siege. As the book alternates between Klytemnestra’s and Helen’s stories, we see the impact of the war through their perspectives. The author chooses to end this easy to read book at moments that undoubtedly suggest a sequel is in the works. Colm Toibin’s House of Names, however, offers a more dynamic retelling, at least of Klytemnestra’s tragic story.

Both books are available online and in bookstores.

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