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Myths revisited: why classical retellings aren’t a ‘dumbing down’

The classical myths are awe inspiring and reading them is an exercise in surprise and recognition: something about these tales never gets old. However, for many the Classics are inaccessible and held up on a pedestal. We risk this discipline becoming elitist, evident in the very statistics of our university. In 2019, there were 224 applications for Literae Humaniores at Oxford, of which only 78 were to state schools. Latin and, more so, Ancient Greek are dwindling disciplines in our schools. I was lucky enough to learn Latin from age 9 as part of the extra-curriculum at school- and indeed, I later went on to teach that same club for younger years- and then started Greek at 14. But for many, their introduction to the Classical world is through these modern retellings, which have become so prevalent. Some may argue this is just ‘dumbing down’ the Classics, but I believe it is a portal through which we can read the Classics in new and revolutionary ways.  

Take, for example, Atwood’s Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey of Homer in which the chorus of maids allowed Atwood to give an authentic voice to characters who are mute in the original. Feminist retellings have become all the rage, from Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful series to Madeline Miller’s Circe and Natalie Haynes’ recent Pandora’s Jar (amongst others). When the literary tradition is so full of the stories of gods and men, it is refreshing when the voices that sing from these pages are those of women and goddesses. Modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories. And when they do, those women are often painted as monstrous, vengeful, or just plain evil. But Pandora – the first woman, who, according to legend, unloosed chaos upon the world – was not a villain, and even Medea and Phaedra have more nuanced stories than generations of retellings might indicate. Marginalised in antiquity, the role of the woman was strictly domestic and these books bring to light their internal struggles and provide a different perspective on the ancient world.  

Moreover, retelling is not merely a modern phenomenon; even in antiquity authors would re-write and re-appropriate the works of others. Perhaps most intriguingly is Sappho who set foundation for lyric poetry and women’s voices more generally, despite her vilification. Her reworkings of some of Homer’s tales, alongside her presentation of a more personal relationship with the gods, give a new and refreshing perspective on women in antiquity. 

Modern women are retelling classic tales through the voices of the women who have been lost through translation and misogyny. Translations of ancient texts have mostly been written by men, and although translations are meant to be objective, often, the translators inscribed their own prejudices and politics into the text. For example, Odysseus’ hanged “maids” were no such thing; those women were slaves who were hanged by Telemachus. It is through translation that these women were labelled “maid” and “slut”. Misogyny is in the very language of these texts, as Emily Wilson notes in her translation where she accurately renders the hanged women as slaves, rather than sluts or maids. She says: “the Odyssey traces deep male fears about female power, and it shows the terrible damage done to women, and perhaps also to men, by the androcentric social structures that keep us silent and constrained.” I certainly don’t believe that any of the characters in Classical mythology are perfect, but think there is a deep rooted issue in how we treat the women and lower classes. Relegating these women to being mere whores and damsels in distress is a damaging trope in literature. This can be fixed by accurate translation, but the work of others, like Atwood, Haynes, Hauser and Miller (to name but a few) is important as well; it is essential that women retake these myths and ensure that the Classical women receive far stories and, through these feminist retellings, redemption.  

So, why do we retell these stories? Is it to give a voice to the marginalised? To right the wrongs of the past? Yes, but we also retell because there is something about these stories that never gets old; something that can grip the very youngest of readers and inspire them to learn. We make the Classics less elitist, less misogynistic, and less unattainable and thus inspire a new generation of Classicists. These stories are not ‘dumbed down’, they are the beginning of a new interpretation. 

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Aside from her degree, AJ is an avid poet, writing about aspects of mental health amongst other things. She has recently co-pioneered Oxford's first mental health magazine, All in Your Head. AJ is also a keen ballet dancer.