top 5 tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

AUGUST 22 – Top 5 Retellings

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I am a little obsessed with Greek mythology, and so to absolutely no one’s surprise, I am cheating big time with this prompt.  I tried to narrow it down to five and failed spectacularly.

Bright Air Black by David Vann
The original: Medea by Euripides & The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes

Bright Air Black is one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read.  The prose is gorgeous and lyrical, and the characterization of Medea is everything I could have asked for.  Vann renders her as a sympathetic figure without losing any of the ferocity that makes her such a fascinating and iconic figure.  Because this novel is so character driven, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the story of Medea before reading it, probably through reading the Euripides play, though the Apollonius of Rhodes story also factors heavily into Vann’s narrative.

Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin
The original: The Aeneid by Vergil

I’ve read The Aeneid about a hundred times, and I have to admit, that probably clouded my judgment of Lavinia just a little bit – I don’t personally love this quite as much as the others on this list.  But it felt unfair to omit it.  It’s a beautifully written book that tells the story from the point of view of Aeneas’s wife, in a way that’s both inventive and also incredibly faithful to the original.  I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read The Aeneid before reading Lavinia – in fact, reading Lavinia first might be a better way to approach the story.

Alcestis by Katherine Beutner
The original: Alcestis by Euripides

The play by Euripides is one of the only remaining Greek ‘tragicomedies’ that we have access to (though scholars still argue about how exactly to classify it).  It’s undoubtedly tragic and comedic at the same time.  Basically, the story is that king Admetus had been promised by Apollo that he could cheat death, as long as when the day of his death came, someone would agree to die in his place.  That person ended up being Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, who ends up going to the underworld before being eventually retrieved by Herakles.  In Beutner’s retelling, when Alcestis dies, she falls in love with the queen of the underworld, Persephone.  This isn’t a flawless book, but the prose is lovely and evocative, and I loved the lesbian twist to the story.  All things considered, I really enjoyed reading this.  It’s certainly not necessary to have read the Euripides play before reading this novel, though with its short length I’d recommend going for it.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The original: Herakles & Geryon from The Geryoneis by Stesichorus

Autobiography of Red isn’t an autobiography at all, but a retelling of this rather obscure Stesichorus poem.  This is a ‘novel in verse,’ so basically a lengthy poem about the life of Geryon, the monster who in Carson’s story is actually the protagonist.  There’s also a gay twist here where Geryon is in love with Herakles.  This book is absolutely striking and unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Anne Carson is a goddess.  It’s absolutely not necessary to read the Stesichorus before reading this book – there’s an introduction that explains away any questions you might have.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare // Ransom by David Malouf // The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad by Homer

Retellings of The Iliad are my raison d’être, so I couldn’t choose just one.  Each of these retellings is completely unique and brings something different to the story.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare: This is a play which spins The Iliad in a firmly anti-war direction.  This play is a one-man show, where the main character, ‘The Poet,’ recounts the story of The Iliad, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector.  In this interpretation, the Poet is forced to recount the same story again and again until there is no more war.  It’s an incredibly hard-hitting interpretation of the story.  I would love to see a live performance of this, but even reading the script was very entertaining.

Ransom by David Malouf: This short little book is a beautifully written retelling of books XXII – XIV of The Iliad, where the Trojan king Priam crosses battle lines to ransom the body of his son Hector from Achilles, who had murdered Hector and has been publicly desecrating his body.  Malouf’s prose is vibrant and lyrical, and his characterization is stunning.  This is a must-read for all Iliad fans.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Probably the most famous Iliad retelling, The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, which Miller depicts as an explicitly romantic relationship.  This book is gorgeous and devastating and while not 100% faithful to The Iliad, Miller pays homage to it in a satisfying way.  I love this book a lot.

BONUS: One more!  I had to include this non-mythological retelling:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The original: Cain and Abel from the Bible

East of Eden is one of the most beautiful family sagas I’ve ever read.  It tells the story of two families in Salinas Valley California, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, whose two family stories come to mirror the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel.  You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this book – even without the biblical undertones, this book is striking.

So those are my top five eight retellings – what are some of your favorites?  And what do you think of my choices?  Comment and let me know!

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