Creative writing: Retelling ancient myths


19 April 2024
Novelist Rosie Garland looks at reworking myths from the point of view of people who didn't get to tell their own story

In an interview for The Silence of the Girls (her formidable retelling of The Iliad), Pat Barker said, 'History is then, Myth is Now'. It encapsulates some of the reasons behind my lifelong passion for ancient myth.

A very early memory is of my grandmother reading folktales and legends. Without leaving the safe harbour of her lap, I could travel to other worlds: magical elsewheres and elsewhens far away from my childhood rural backwater. Suckled on the boundless possibilities of stories, it was a short step to writing my own, creating tiny books for my dolls (they were good listeners).

As a child, the ancient world of myth and legend was Jason and the Argonauts on Sunday afternoon TV. In glorious Technicolor, it boasted bleached-blonde goddesses daubed in crimson lipstick and square-jawed warriors in leather miniskirts. Jason was the hero, unquestionably: wildly handsome and the favourite of the goddess Hera.

However, the sword-fighting skeletons and bronze giants couldn’t dispel a sense of unease. Even as a child, I knew something wasn’t right. At the climax of the movie, the people of Colchis welcome the Argonauts, treating them as honoured guests. Jason repays their generosity by stealing their most treasured possession, the Golden Fleece. He also abducts the king’s daughter, Medea. Everything is justified as the will of the Gods. More accurately, Jason says Hera told him to do it. We have the word of the hero. It must be true… mustn’t it?

It was the first time I came up against the notion of history being written by the winners. As I grew, I learned about times in the past – and the present – when theft of resources, land and peoples has been carried out in the name of kings (crowned or uncrowned) or defended as ‘progress’. It seemed the colourful myth of the Argonauts contained hidden questions.

I wondered what the story of the marauding Vikings – sorry, Argonauts - might sound like if told from the point of view of the inhabitants of Colchis. Or Medea. In Jason’s version, she can’t resist his manly charms and falls in love at first sight. I wondered what if, for a change, she seized the chance to speak and we heard her side of the story.

I continued to read voraciously, finding myself drawn to stories of outsiders, those who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates on offer and the friction that occurs when they try. There were novels that resonated deeply. To name a very few: Jean Rhys’s mistressful Wide Sargasso Sea (told from the viewpoint of Bertha Rochester, the so-called ‘madwoman in the attic’ from Jane Eyre); Mary Renault’s re-queering of the life of Alexander the Great, The Persian Boy (especially radical when you consider it was published in 1972, only five years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and nine years before Scotland); Angela Carter’s gothic retelling of fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber.

Here were writers exploring the issue of who gets to tell the story, and arriving at refreshingly different conclusions. Why should we have to take the traditionally accepted version at face value? What happens when we hear from those who’ve been denied a voice?

These are questions that – thankfully – show no sign of going away. There is a magical power in the retelling of myth, and the 21st century is seeing a resurgence with wonderful reimaginings and reworkings by authors such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, Amanda Saint and Phoenicia Rogerson – I could go on!

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One of the many pleasures I discovered when retelling the myth of The Fates is the opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless. It explains my choice of first-person for the characters. I want them to speak for themselves, rather than endure the ventriloquising that comes with third-person. In the words of the immortal Fates (the three sisters Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos): 'For the first time, we shall speak in our own voices, and tell the plain truth.'

Even arch-narcissist Zeus speaks in first person. Completely uninterested in anyone but himself, his sole motivation is hanging onto power whatever the cost (sound familiar?). I wanted to burrow under the skin of that mindset, explore how it operates and why it is truly dangerous, especially at a time of climate and global crisis. To reiterate the perceptive words of Pat Barker, 'History is then. Myth is now”'

This is the beating heart of The Fates. For everyone who wants to hear another side; the story behind the story; who wants to hear from those shoved to the sidelines and denied a speaking part; anyone who has felt pushed to the edges of their own story, perhaps. I wrote this for us.

Rosie Garland’s novel The Fates is published by Quercus hardback, ebook and audiobook


Interested in reworking ancient stories? Read historial fantasy author Thikde Kold Holdt's advice on writing about Vikings