Approaching ancient mythology to reinterpret and update it for a modern audience is an exciting and daunting prospect. Greek mythology is well known and beloved by many. Often people are introduced to the myths as children and are captivated by a thrilling world of gods, monsters and heroes. However, as we grow up and start to examine the stories more closely, we find deeper layers, hidden meanings and some unpleasant shocks in the tales that we love. This only makes it all the riper for retelling and drawing out the nuances and complexities that make ancient stories so relevant to today.
I fell in love with Greek mythology reading classic books like Roger Lancelyn-Green’s Tale of Troy when I was young and the fascination endured. I was so eager to study Classics as a teenager that I made the decision to drop out of sixth form and re-apply for a different college, purely because it offered an A-Level in Classical Civilisation. I never regretted it! I loved the course so much that I went on to read Classical Studies at university which opened up even more of the ancient world and its literature to me.
Even if you haven’t studied it formally, there is a wealth of resources available on Greek mythology which make it easy to immerse yourself in it. Authors such as Madeline Miller, Natalie Haynes, Pat Barker and Stephen Fry all have bestselling novels that retell the stories, there are dozens of podcasts ranging from the fiercely feminist Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby to the child-friendly Greeking Out National Geographic series which I play in the car on the school run. My ten-year-old son, a passionate Rick Riordan fan, has swiftly learned more than me and frequently tells me facts I’d never heard before! Websites like theoi.com are packed with useful information and if it’s not possible to visit places like the British Museum in person, you can go online to view some of their artefacts. Getting a feel for the materials and textures of the Bronze Age is tricky – what survives of that long-distant world is fragmentary and often frustrating so anything you can physically see is very valuable.
I like to gather images of paintings of classical subjects to inspire atmosphere and bring life and colour to the characters. Depending on the myth you want to retell, it’s easy to find ancient plays by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles and there are numerous translations of Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad from which you can seek out little details as well as major plot points to bring your world to life. A major part of my research for Ariadne centred on Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of letters written in the first century BCE from the imagined perspective of the heroines of Greek myth – giving a voice to the women, whose roles have so often been relegated to the sidelines, and letting them tell their side of the story. I’ve also spent a lot of time taking virtual tours of ancient sites like Knossos, seeking out photographs of the ruins online to help me rebuild it in my mind. I loved Bettany Hughes’ Greek Island Odyssey television show in which she visited different Greek islands, exploring the history behind the myths. Getting visual and tactile details is so crucial when you’re creating a world that is in many ways so alien and unfamiliar to us.
It’s important though to remember that you’re writing a novel, not a thesis. I do a lot of research while I’m planning but when the time comes to start writing, I have to strip a lot of that research out again. Every draft of the book excises a little more as it moves from information to interpretation. I have to create something fresh and different that serves the purpose of the narrative that I’m driven to tell. I have to reinvent well known characters so they become living, breathing people to me so that I can understand and care about them if I have any hope of making readers feel the same.
It can feel intimidating to do this – I was paralysed for a long time by a vision of angry classicists reading over my shoulder as I wrote, anticipating readers’ reactions when I explored alternative motivations or endings to the ones they might know and love. Who was I, after all, to take on these epic tales that underpin the foundation of our literature, that have been enshrined and revered for centuries and have endured for so long because of their brilliance, their relevance and the humanity which shines through them from the long-distant past? You have to push those fears aside and write the story that you want to read, that you want to tell and that can only come from you. I believe that putting the women of myth front and centre and celebrating the vital roles they played is so worthwhile. After all, although Theseus gets all the glory for slaying the Minotaur, where would he be without Ariadne’s help? It’s about time she gets the credit – and there are so many other characters who deserve the same recognition.
You do have to be fairly ruthless with the sprawling timelines, bewildering chronology and complex family trees that make up the body of mythology. You can torture yourself trying to impose some kind of order, but it will be fruitless! Greek myths arise from different periods and different regions and often the various stories about a particular character will directly contradict each other. There are numerous ideas about what happened to Ariadne after the death of the Minotaur; I had to choose the one which I found the most interesting and turn it into my own vision. Don’t try to accommodate it all – pick and choose the parts of the myth that you need and discard what you don’t.
(c) Jennifer Saint
As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.
When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.
In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?
ARIADNE gives a voice to the forgotten women of one of the most famous Greek myths, and speaks to their strength in the face of angry, petulant Gods. Beautifully written and completely immersive, this is an exceptional debut novel.
A mesmerising retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Perfect for fans of CIRCE, A SONG OF ACHILLES, and THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS.
‘ARIADNE gives voice to the misused Princess of Crete who betrayed her father to save Theseus from the Minotaur. Relevant and revelatory.’ – Stylist
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