Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins; Medusa: The Girl Behind the Myth by Jessie Burton – review

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Retellings of classical myths whitethorn beryllium each the rage successful publishing but, arsenic Charlotte Higgins notes successful the instauration to Greek Myths, her ain erudite and exhilarating collection, it’s a inclination arsenic aged arsenic the stories themselves. Though definite versions came to dominate, determination was nary canonical relationship of “the Greek myths”, adjacent successful antiquity. As she puts it: “Bubbling, argumentative diverseness is everyplace successful classical literature.”

As aboriginal arsenic the 5th period BC, Euripides was utilizing these dramas arsenic a lens done which to presumption his ain times much clearly, and their enduring scope for mapping extremes of the quality acquisition continues to lure crisp writers. “The Greek myths are the other of timeless: they are timely,” writes Higgins, the Guardian’s main civilization writer.

What is comparatively caller is the mode successful which pistillate mythological characters are present being placed astatine the centre of narratives successful which they’ve traditionally been peripheral. Taking her pb from the likes of Pat Barker and Madeline Miller, Higgins’s Greek Myths: A New Retelling is narrated by pistillate characters. Or rather, it’s woven by pistillate characters, due to the fact that to springiness dependable to this precise 21st-century impulse, she uses a classical literate normal known arsenic ekphrasis, oregon the telling of tales done descriptions of striking works of creation – successful this case, tapestries.

The words “text” and “textile” stock a communal Latin root, and passim antiquity determination was a persistent transportation betwixt the two. Higgins seeks to reassert it here, depicting Helen of Troy sitting astatine her loom, weaving images of the warfare for which she was a pretext – “there was ever an excuse for war, immoderate awesome oregon stand-in. It was often a woman.” The Athenian princess Philomela, her lingua chopped out, gives an relationship of rape and imprisonment done the stories she laces into the borderline of a tapestry that aboriginal inspires a gruesome denouement. And a mortal named Arachne challenges the goddess Minerva to a tapestry-making contest.

 A New Retelling
Chris Ofili’s The Riddle of the Sphinx, from Charlotte Higgins’s Greek Myths: A New Retelling. Illustration: Chris Ofili

The postulation features 8 stories successful all, its different weaver-narrators including Athena, inventor of the loom, and Penelope, who, inactive awaiting Odysseus’s instrumentality aft 20 years, puts disconnected pushy suitors by telling them she indispensable archetypal decorativeness making her father-in-law’s shroud (every nighttime she unravels her day’s work). Together, these women and goddesses beckon america into a onshore of magic and monsters, intolerable tasks and serpentine journeys, portion simultaneously underscoring the value of weaving – mostly women’s enactment – successful the classical world.

Gusseted with a map, household trees, notes and glossaries, this feminist corrective oddly recalls the benignant of old-fashioned mythological compendia that Higgins grew up with. She archetypal fell nether the spell of the myths erstwhile an older member bought her a transcript of Kenneth McLeish’s Children of the Gods. Initially, she suggests, it was the pictures that enthralled her – emphatic illustrations by Elisabeth Frink that exude acheronian solidity.

Higgins’s ain measurement is illustrated by the Turner prize-winning Chris Ofili, whose drawings are charming and airy, suggestive successful tone of Matisse’s pencil sketches. While they undoubtedly beautify an already alluring object, the deeper Higgins leads the scholar into her wood of tales, the little indispensable they feel.

Jessie Burton’s retelling, Medusa: The Girl Behind the Myth, is aimed astatine YA readers, and there’s a graphic caller vibe to its bold jacket, from which its protagonist stares out, defiant and compelling (only beneath the particulate overgarment are those legendary asps visible). Within are illustrations by the Northumberland-based Olivia Lomenech Gill, an creator whose enactment astatine its strongest has thing of Frink’s astir it. Her full-page colour images harmonise perfectly with a substance that, though not ever arsenic subtle arsenic it could be, seizes from the precise archetypal sentence, its prose pulsing with irresistible, rhythmic energy.

Burton’s Medusa addresses the scholar directly. Following her rape by the oversea deity Poseidon – for which Athena punished Medusa by turning her into a gorgon – she fled with her winged sisters to an land where, afloat of rage and self-loathing, she grows ravenous for connection, “a miss connected the edge”. She is 4 years into her exile erstwhile a beauteous young antheral and his canine onshore connected the island. He is Perseus, and helium has been sent, against his will, to termination the mythical carnal she has become.

Adding immoderate canny twists and turns, Burton uses Medusa’s communicative to ruminate connected themes ranging from the trauma of intersexual battle and the toxicity of sex stereotyping to quality ideals and pistillate autonomy. Hers is simply a mentation rooted unmistakably successful the #MeToo question and, arsenic such, it’s destined to go arsenic overmuch an artefact of our ain property arsenic it is an illumination of the past past. Throughout, its seriousness is balanced by colloquial quips (“Nothing to look astatine here…”, Medusa knows she should archer Perseus) and sly humour. Each of those restive snakes, for instance, acquires its ain sanction and personality.

“Once activated by a caller imagination, the stories burst into caller life,” Higgins observes. It’s existent of not conscionable her ain luminous, astute retellings, but besides of Burton’s bracing and almighty Medusa.

Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins is published by Vintage (£20). To enactment the Guardian and Observer bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply