How Novels Like “Circe” Show Ancient Stories In A New Light

“How Novels Like “Circe” Show Ancient Stories In A New Light”
| October 22, 2018 | Buzz Feed News

How Novels Like _Circe_ Show Ancient Stories In A New Light

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

In three recent novels that reimagine ancient epics — CirceThe Mere Wife, and The Silence of the Girls — authors wrestle with both their source material and the centuries of cultural baggage it carries.

Writers have always come back to older texts, finding new twists on old legends. Jean Rhys and James Joyce weren’t the first in the Western tradition to do it, when Rhys reimagined Jane Eyre’s doomed Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea and Joyce sent Odysseus walking the streets of Dublin in Ulysses. Virgil, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all found the roots of some of their plots in stories from other writers. Even now, with more stringent concepts of originality and plagiarism, adaptations of classic texts are a healthy part of our literary ecosystem, from Hogarth Press’s Shakespeare adaptation series to an ever-expanding array of Jane Austen homages.

Retelling old stories is not just a chance to revisit familiar and beloved characters or settings, but to bring out something new. Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is an uncanny take on the Snow White fairy tale and delves into the politics of racial passing. Emily Wilson’s much-celebrated translation of The Odyssey uses its language to draw attention to the hypocrisies within the original text, while picking a fight with centuries of misogynist translation. In adaptations, writers can expand the breadth of a text or a narrative, to say something about their own historical period… and to shed new light on the original text.

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