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The Power of Fiction: Mythology


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  • Caryatids at the Acropolis

Phil, Queen's Square | March 1, 2019

It’s probably safe to say that few people are afraid of the potential wrath of Greek or Roman gods in their day-to-day life. That said, there’s still power in mythmaking and myth deconstructing.

Re-telling mythical stories is the thematic cord that brings The Silence of the Girls (Pat Barker), Everything Under (Daisy Johnson) and Circe (Madeline Miller) together. Although the approaches are quite different, all three authors see re-telling mythological stories as an opportunity to give voice to those who often appear silent in historical stories; in particular women.

Briseis, the story teller in Silence of the Girls, bluntly sums up her life as spoil of war. Barker’s tale is soul crushing yet ends with the hope that Briseis will be able to write and live her own story.

Circe is the re-telling of an exiled immortal being and her growth into a powerful witch/herbalist. Circe makes it clear she holds little hope for the gods.  “… gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So, they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It only leaves ash behind.” Her hope is with humans despite their imperfections.

Johnson’s Everything Under is a gnarled tale of doomed mother-daughter relationships, with the suggestion that womanhood is a trap. “There is no escaping... the way we will end up is coded into us from the moment we are born,” Sarah tells Gretel. “Any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will.”  Everything Under re-tells the Oedipus story with shapeshifting/gender fluidity and a large dollop of biological fate.

In all cases, these authors have re-infused mythologies with candor and vitality, creating a sense of universality and contemporary relevance.

For those looking for extra credit reading make sure to check out Penelopiad  by Margaret Atwood, Fire Gospel by Michael Faber, and Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith. Want a short primer on mythology?: Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth is a good place to start. Other authors who have explored mythologies in both historical and contemporary ways include Philip Pullman’s Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Jesus and Amit Chaudhuri's Odysseus Abroad.

So, what’s up for March?

"Why study history?" is the question that unifies next month's reads. Paris Echo  by Sebastian Faulks, Sight by Jessie Greengrass, Love is Blind: The Rapture of Brodie Mancur  by William Boyd, and a diversion to Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight will hopefully shed some light on the uses of history in fiction.

Paris EchoSightLove is BlindWarlight