Alex Michaelides on Retelling and Revising Greek Mythology
Growing up in Cyprus, Alex Michaelides has always felt a strong affinity for the myths of Ancient Greece - utilising the story of Alcestis for his breakout bestseller The Silent Patient. This month Michaelides returns with The Maidens, a campus crime thriller which makes explicit reference to a number of iconic female figures from the Greek myths and in this exclusive piece he outlines some of his favourite examples of modern mythical retellings.
In my new novel, The Maidens, tragic heroines from Greek mythology exert a powerful hold over my protagonist, a psychotherapist named Mariana. These characters have had a similar hold on me since I was a child in the Mediterranean, in Cyprus. Growing up on Aphrodite’s island, I was immersed in Greek mythology from a young age. All the gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters played out their stories in my imagination – and they still do.
I’m excited by the increasing interest in retelling Greek mythology; in taking it apart and putting it back together from a modern, often female perspective. The first book that I read with this kind of sensibility was The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – where she retells the story of the Trojan War from the point of view of Patroclus. She reframes the story so it becomes about the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, and the love they had for each other. And in doing so, Miller brings to life the ancient past with a subtle psychological realism and deeply moving emotion – making it ‘live’ in a way I had never encountered before.
Miller performed a similar kind of magic in Circe – where Circe is reclaimed from Odysseus’s (and Homer’s) narrative. Miller recasts this supporting player, this ‘baddie’, as a troubled and fascinating heroine in her own right; who is at once ancient and modern, an example of just what it means to be an independent woman in a man’s world.
Pat Barker did something similar in The Silence of the Girls. She plucked the relatively minor character of Briseis, and elevated her from being pawn in the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, into the narrator of the novel.
Briseis’s narration is almost entirely internal. She actually speaks very little – unlike the female characters of Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships. A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing A Thousand Ships brought to life by an incredible cast of female actors in a series of monologues, a kind of Vagina Monologues for the Ancient Greeks. Haynes gives a voice – or rather, many voices – to the marginalised, forgotten and silenced female characters in The Trojan War, retelling the myth from their perspective. Fittingly, the all-day performance took place in the British Museum, in the Ancient Greek and Roman rooms, surrounded by classical art; and proved a thrilling theatrical experience.
One of the latest novels to reimagine a Greek myth is Ariadne by Jennifer Saint. This is a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur from a female point of view – specifically, Ariadne’s perspective, examining her love for Theseus. She was prepared to betray her family and her country for him – and Saint considers the huge sacrifices Ariadne makes in the context of her upbringing and the world around her.
In The Maidens, one of the myths I examine is the story of Iphigenia, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for her father. I ask what a psychotherapist might make of their relationship – dysfunctional, certainly; also infanticidal and deadly. She alone in the play calls Agamemnon a great man. Why was Iphigenia so desperate to please her father? Why did she give up her very life for him? What does that tell us, not just about some mythical people, but about our own relationships with our parents; our desperate need, as children, to be loved – and all the sacrifices we make in order to win this love.
In The Silent Patient, I drew inspiration from the myth of Alcestis, who died to save her husband, Admetus – and was then brought back to life, and returned to him. In the play by Euripides, when she is reunited with her husband, Alcestis doesn’t speak, and remains silent until the end of the play. This silence, this refusal to explain or conclude, haunted me for years. I didn’t know how to feel about it – or what it meant. Was she silent because she was overcome, overjoyed at seeing her husband again? Or was she furious that he allowed her to die for him?
There is a great deal of negative space in Greek mythology – all the things unsaid and unexplained – that allows for endless reinterpretation and reworking of the shadowy subtextual secrets. What fascinates me about these retellings of old stories is how the myths themselves are able to withstand this modern scrutiny; almost magically, the relationships still stand up and they still make psychological and emotional sense. Which only serves to prove their enduring power, and explains why they are as relevant now as they ever were.
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