The shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for literature included, besides Anna Burns’ Milkman, two authors whose work reflects the current trend for re-worked Greek mythology. Madeline Miller and Pat Barker, listed for their novels Circe and Silence of the Girls, are just two of the many authors writing today who draw on the ancient past for their inspiration. Irish author Lynn Buckle, whose nomination for the Women’s Prize just missed the list, also references mythology in her novel The Groundsmen. This Greek family tragedy was published in 2018 and is followed by Paul Haddon’s latest novel on similar themes, The Porpoise.
Why the preponderance of mythopoeia in literary fiction? Are there no new stories to be told, are these just re-workings of old tropes? If a novel contains appalling behaviour, family drama, endless sparring or infidelity on an epic scale, it is simply describing the human condition. The Greeks serialised our morality, foibles and failures in the guise of Gods and Goddesses lest we recognise our mortal selves – or lest we don’t. These ancient insights remain pertinent, they are as eternal as immortality itself. And that is the point, we are always ourselves; misogynistic, warring, selfish, idolising, yearning perfectionists. Tragic, clever and beautiful.
The regurgitating, the reinventing, the references and re-writes of Greek mythology will continue for as long as humanity remains on this planet. In case it doesn’t we have been warned by the many versions of dystopian literature which deal in apocalyptic disaster. But Dystopia was never an imaginary place of future ruination, it is now, and authors are at pains to either point out our dystopia-blindness or to salve our weariness of it with idealised beauties and escapist yarns. Authors and readers alike fall into one or other classical camp. But then every human discord has an opposing virtue and a story to help us to understand it. Authors of these stories are seeking congruence with the ancients or opposing them, either way the Greeks are lending credence to contemporary fiction. Pat Barker rights gender imbalance wrongs in her Silence of the Girls, giving a voice to women, not just of the past, in her re-telling of Homer’s Trojan Wars. Narrated by Briseis who was virtually ignored by Homer, it an attempt to give a feminist perspective for women of the present. Country by Michael Hughes also revives the Iliad but sets it in Northern Ireland where conflict and sexist wrongs continue aplenty although Anna Burns winningly attests to this in Milkman without so much as a glimpse of a Grecian. Madeline Miller’s classicist background lends academic rigor to an engagingly written Circe, the novel’s heroine being an extension of Homer’s same character in the Odyssey. Here she presents us with timeless dilemmas. Others, like Daisy Johnson in Everything Under and Lynn Buckle in The Groundsmen set their stories in contemporary life and weave mythological allusions and archetypes throughout their tales like Arachne herself.
Paul Haddon, best known for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), feels that mythology lends a respectability in which the author can couch contentious issues. The Porpoise and The Groundsmen are both family dramas addressing the delicate subjects of incest and domestic abuse. Although Haddon’s is a contemporary swashbuckling fantasy adventure, both deal with age-old paedophilia, using ancient myths to add meaning to their characters. The Porpoise is a re-working of Shakespeare’s story of Pericles whereas The Groundsmen creates a new myth for the modern world. From tragedy to beauty, on Mount Olympus or in Mountjoy Square, these authors tread in well-worn footsteps.
Lynn Buckle, art historian, artist, activist, and author of The Groundsmen published by époque press (2018), will be giving a richly illustrated talk on the Greek art and mythology which inspired The Groundsmen in Maynooth library as part of Kildare Readers’ Festival on October 15th. Meanwhile Lynn can be heard giving talks on her work as part of the Waterstones Myth, Narrative & Social Action tour throughout Ireland and the UK, details here News & Events