Greek Mythology Book Adaptation Reviews
I'm going to review some Greek mythology adaptations I've read to either recommend the ones I enjoyed or warn you which to steer clear of.
But first, a quick word on accuracy. Most of these are going to have issues with the accuracy of character portrayals and or the story. It's unfortunately inherent to this genre. I enjoy Greek mythology and homer because the characters are flawed and complex. So, I don't know if authors make the changes they do because they think modern audiences want a cleaner cut good guys/protagonist vs bad guys/antagonist dynamic or what. Ultimately, I do think it does the characters a disservice to try and sort the characters into “good guy” and “bad guy” boxes. So, I will point out major inaccuracies, especially with Trojan War surrounding books bc while there are multiple versions of many Greek myths, the trojan war has most of the action solidified by homer, and you can then decide if it's worth reading. A lot of what I like about these books will come down to writing style. We all know these stories and how they go, so it’s up to the author to write them in a way that is worth reading. Some of these books I vehemently disliked and some of them I love. This is mostly to just share my experiences with everyone. I know when I was looking into Greek mythology based works these were recommended as if they were all equal but in reading them that is definitely not the case.
Books discussed under the cut: Ariadne, Helen of Troy, Troy (by Stephen Fry), The Song of Kings, The Song of Achilles, Circe, Lore Olympus, The Penelopiad, and Ransom.
(Quick disclaimer: All opinions are my own, you don’t have to agree with me, feel free to share your opinions in the comments, the point is to generate discussion and help people pick books they might enjoy, but also remember I am a person with feelings, so if you disagree with me just don’t be rude about it)
1. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
Personally, I enjoyed this book. I thought it was simply going to cover the slaying of the Minotaur and end with maybe Dionysus finding Ariadne on Naxos, kind of a happily ever after ending there since this is how the myth was presented to me. Instead it incorporates all myths surrounding Ariadne, including her sister Phaedra. The point of view switches in between them. Theseus is not presented super favorably in this book, but honestly given all his myths I’m not surprised. Gods are not shown to be sympathetic to humans either, which I also don’t think is a surprising take given the contents of Greek mythology. However, one plot point does really bug me. Slight spoilers but Ariadne finds out the cult of Dionysus is participating in animal sacrifice and is horrified, which given how common animal sacrifice is for the time period this take place in, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think being horrified by animal sacrifice is too much of a modern point of view. There is also a slight theme of women constantly being oppressed by men, and the women do nothing wrong. Given Phaedra’s story this doesn’t make a lot of sense and ultimately dulls the complexity of the characters. Still, I ultimately liked it.
2. Circe by Madeline Miller
If I were to rank all the books on this list, Circe would be my favorite. For a book about a character who lives most of her life exiled on an island, Miller pulls together every potential relation or myth that could be tied to Circe together in this book. I adore the way the gods are described, especially the underwater gods are super inhuman looking/sounding. It’s a breath of fresh air, I get tired of the gods that just look like hot humans in white robes real quick. Like, Ariadne the gods are not shown to be sympathetic to humans, whereas Circe is based on how she grew up being treated. This is basically the theme of the book, finding yourself and where you fit in in the world.
Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, has characterization that is a direct contradiction to how she is presented in Ariadne, but I like Miller’s version better. She’s a bitch but at least she has agency as opposed to being “sad woman who is oppressed under men”. Odysseus is presented so well in this book, she captures all his good traits (the reasons we love him) and his bad ones (reasons why we know we shouldn’t like him) so well, great handling of a complex character. Also the writing style is gorgeous. I can’t recommend this book enough. (I’m sorry this is so short, I’m really good at describing what I don’t like in books as opposed to what I do like, but I freaking love this book. Seriously.)
3. Helen of Troy by Margaret George
I first read this book 4-5 years ago and really liked it. So, while on my Greek mythology kick I reread it thinking I would enjoy it. This really wasn’t the case. I think the main reason being I finally read the actual Iliad before reading this, so I noticed all the inaccuracies and they really bothered me. This book presents Helen’s abduction as a choice she made after falling in love with Paris. I will give the author kudos for not portraying Menelaus as abusive like in the movie Troy or the 2018 tv show Troy. Instead Helen slights Aphrodite so Aphrodite makes Helen and Menelaus’s marriage passionless. So, when Paris shows up Aphrodite once again decides to fuck with Helen by making her super in love and finally horny for a man. Despite the relationship being forced, the book carries through that Helen and Paris actually loved each other throughout the whole book, which since the relationship has so little foundation to stand on it is pretty bland. George also goes with the “good guys” “bad guys” approach and consequently twists a lot of characters and events to try and absolve Helen and Paris so that “they did nothing wrong”. To do this so much has to be changed and ultimately they still aren’t likeable. For example, George has Helen ask her daughter Hermione if she wants to leave but Hermione says no so she leaves her. She tries to show her being sad about it but repeatedly does everything she can to absolve her of having been in the wrong. Same with stealing from Sparta’s treasury, Priam lying to the Greeks about Helen being with them, or Paris killing his son. If you like any of the characters on the Greek side you probably won’t like their portrayals. Everyone else has to be in the wrong so that Paris and Helen aren’t. Also I don’t know if this is accurate but Helen is in her late 20s, early 30s when she meets Paris and Paris is 16 :/. I know times were different in 1200 BCE but a modern author still chose to keep these ages and represent Paris, a teenager, as super sexy and like an adult. My last major gripe with this book has to do with dramatic irony. Ariadne, Circe, The Song of Achilles, all use dramatic irony throughout there story. This was common in Greek plays because the audience knows the story and knows what’s going to happen, so they foreshadow the events through the characters, who are oblivious to their doomed fate. In the books I mentioned above this is done really well, however this book attempts to do that and falls flat on it’s face. George has Helen bestowed with the gift of prophecy and she just randomly blurts out her famous lines from the Iliad at random times. And every freakin time she is so confused, like “huh wow that was dark”. Some of Helen’s best lines are completely wasted. And every time Helen gets a vision of Troy on fire she just writes it off as not possible. It’s ultimately a very frustrating adaptation.
4. Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe
So, while I enjoy Lore Olympus, I got to be honest with you, it’s the junk food of this list. While Circe and Ransom are very literary and works of art, this is a comic that’s main claim to fame is that it’s entertaining. It’s not super deep and thought-provoking like the others on this list. It’s currently available for free on Webtoon, updates every Sunday (or if you are like me, Saturday evening) but is coming into print sometime in October/November (there’s some sort of printed book shortage going round, as of Sept 2021, I don’t know all the details but LO had it’s release date pushed back, likely for this reason) so obviously a lot of people like it. LO is also supposed to be getting an animated TV show, or so I’ve heard.
The main plot has to do with the romance between Persephone and Hades, it’s a very “will they, won’t they” dynamic. Up until “season 2″ most of the plot was similar to that of a teenage or young adult TV drama. However the series is very addicting because Smythe ends each installment on a cliffhanger, when I read this I basically ended up spending my whole weekend nonstop reading. My favorite thing about the series is how funny it is. Lots of the humor is very similar to Scott Pilgrim, both the comic and the movie. The way I was introduced to Greek Mythology was through the Percy Jackson series, so I always have a soft-spot for funny adaptations. Lots of crazy-ass shit happens in Greek mythology that can be hard to take seriously.
What I don’t like about LO has a lot to do with art-style and diversity. The body types are HEAVILY gendered. Like, all the men are built like a brick wall, 7 ft tall, 8-pack. While the women are TINY with huge tits and ass. And this design appears over and over and over again. It gets tiring, and it’s frankly unimaginative. I also don’t see lots of diversity in the way the characters are presented. Yes, they are the colors of the rainbow but you can make supernatural characters BIPOC-coded, look at Steven Universe. Both Garnet and Bismuth are red and purple but they are very obviously both black. Same goes for LGBTQ characters. Greek mythology itself features a lot of gay relationships. However, LO has so far only confirmed that Athena/Hestia are dating, no other characters, have been shown to be gay or of the many relationships shown in depth, no aspect of their relationship has been shown, just confirmed. What I also don’t like is that, since she is a wlw, Athena is simply designed the same way all the men are, tall broad shouldered, small hips. It’s almost like Smythe saying, “This is the “man” in the relationship.” I wouldn’t be so bitchy about it if this weren’t the only female body with deviation. Hestia is also the only non-background character to be drawn fat, and she still has a distinct hourglass shape, so it’s easy to miss she is the only non-skinny representation. Basically, the diversity is crumbs.
I’m not saying Lore Olympus is bad or you are bad for liking it, I still like it. I just don’t have high expectations for it either.
5. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
When read this book, I was thinking it was going to be a lot like Circe, a whole life epic of Penelope. It’s not really like that, it’s a very short literary piece of work. It is told from the perspective of Penelope in Asphodel, she is giving an abbreviated version of her life history. However, the book switched often to one part of the The Odyssey that stands out to Atwood, which is Odysseus killing the handmaidens. This is a more feminist point, that the handmaidens did nothing wrong, they only interacted with the suitors and yet Odysseus killed them. I think it makes a good point of faithfulness, this is a trait of Penelope’s that is really emphasized in her story, waiting 20 years for her husband, while everyone knows he wasn’t faithful to her. But if she had done the same he would’ve punished her. So by highlighting this point in the story, Atwood points out the unusually high expectations women face. I do like this book, Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, but Penelope does use modern language, according to the story because she’s picked it up wandering Asphodel, but that wasn’t my favorite choice. Also, Helen. Helen is portrayed as the whore who started the war because she loves eating men and men dying for her. Kind of a derivative take that is weird in contrast to the rest of the theme of the book. Finally, the story does say that instead of staying in Asphodel that shades like Helen and Odysseus can choose to be reborn, and that they’ve lived in the world hundreds of times. This was a cool nod to how universal these characters are, a hero with a thousand faces style.
6. The Song of Achilles by Margret Miller
I feel like this one is a bit controversial. It’s going depend heavily on what you are looing for in a book. So let me start off by addressing the bad, which is the characterization. This book is a lot like Helen of Troy, in that it tries to box characters into “good guys” and “bad guys”. There is some more nuanced characterization compared to Helen, it simplifies some dynamics to fit the modern audience. It’s the story of Patroclus and Achilles, from a young age until their death, mostly focusing on their romance. This romance is made monogamous in this book, even though it wasn’t in the Iliad and other works. So the relationship with those two and Briseis and Deidamia were changed heavily to fit this, often at the expense of the women and their characterization. Agamemnon is another character who gets a pretty flat take, shown as only an antagonist throughout. Finally, Patroclus, the main character is a big one, in the Iliad Patroclus is one of the best warriors on the Greek side. In this book, he doesn’t fight. He rejects combat and is shown as only tending to the wounded. And while tending to the wounded is something Patroclus did, it is obviously a very modern anti-war take. A lot of Iliad adaptations try and make it clear they are very anti-war, as if the original Iliad wasn’t anti-war in itself (seriously, go read/reread it, the way Homer invokes carnage is not heroic). nd ultimately the ancient Greeks had very different views on heroism and honor that Miller chose not to portray. To the Achaeans, what would be more heroic than to fight beside your loved one? It makes the pivotal moment, Patroclus putting on Achilles armor and pretending to be him, an extremely dumb move, an obvious death sentence. Instead of what it was, a trusting of equals (still maybe dumb but not a death sentence). I also do think people are a little hard on this book, a common criticism is that the characters are one dimensional. I don’t think they are at all, the are simply all told from Patroclus’s perspective, so it’s only as he saw them.
However, despite all that I do really like this book, a lot of it comes down to the writing style. I said before in the review for Circe how much I love Miller’s style. The same can be said for this book. It’s no wonder quotes from this book are all over tumblr. It’s really beautifully written. Heavy use dramatic irony and it's done so well. The romance is superb, it feels star-cross, soulmates, cataclysmic. The scenes detailing Achilles grief hit me so hard, and the scene with Achilles and Priam is amazing. It’s not for everyone, but personally I love this book.
7. The Song of Kings by Barry Unsworth
I’m going to be quick about this one because I hated it and I tend to go on about things I don’t like but this book is not worth the time. I looked up “Greek mythology /Iliad adaptation novels” and this was recommended to me on some article. It had good reviews so I went for it. This book was basically written as metaphor for the gulf war, which the author did not support. I don’t support war either but this book, which is supposed to be a retelling of Iphigenia at Aulis, basically destroys the characters to get it’s anti-war message. If you like anyone on the Greek side, you will not like this book, they are all portrayed as greedy, blood hungry, idiots. Unless you really like Calachas for some reason. I could go for pages on everything that’s wrong but I won’t. Basically, if you like the Iliad you won’t like this book because it’s not really concerned with the Iliad so much as it’s own message.
8. Ransom by David Malouf
This novel recounts one of the best parts of the Trojan War, the meeting of Achilles and Priam. In the Iliad it sends such a powerful message about what it means to be human and to grieve. Both Priam and Achilles are like gods, one a king the other a hero, and they choose to set aside their differences and behave like men. It ends the epic poem with a story of compassion.
And this book's retelling of that scene... meh. It seems like it's more about Priam experiencing life outside of being a king, the middle of the book has a huge emphasis on how little he knows about daily life and even his sons. Even when he meets Achilles, what should have been a great scene, he focus on how good it is of him to do this, not how much he loves his son, which should be the point. The whole book focuses on how by doing this act and humbling himself he is a hero, but it's not very humble to keep congratulating himself for doing it. No thoughts are on Hector, who in the Iliad was his favorite son. Honestly if Hector's shade could read Priam's mind, I think he'd be pissed with how much the old man only thinks of himself and his legacy, not his son.
And what convinces Achilles is Priam asking Achilles if he would do the same for his son and vice versa and Achilles spend a lot of time contemplating his own death like he'd never thought of it, which just doesn't make sense. Achilles knew when he sailed to Troy there was a prophecy that he wouldn't return, and multiple times ppl (and a horse) describe his death in exact detail and everytime he just goes "Tell me something I don't know". Death doesn't bother Achilles, but his legacy does and it seems so weird the author missed that.
The best part of this book is the beginning, while Achilles is mourning Patroclus it goes over their history. It's not super explicit about the nature of their relationship but it's written beautifully, the intensity of their love and consequently Achilles's grief is there.
9. Troy by Stephen Fry
First off, I got the hard cover edition and this book is so beautiful. It has think pages with color printed art from various era's that depict the myths being told. I dog ear books to keep my place and when I opened this book I considered not dog earing it bc of how nice it is (I ended up doing it anyways though, it's my book).
This book is so comprehensive, it includes a lot of background on the myths and lineage surrounding the main characters in the Trojan war. It mentions myths that are usually less common. I grew up reading a lot of greek myth collections and obviously some get repeated over and over while some you might only see mentioned once or twice. Well Fry doesn't let a single story pass you by, he tells them bc he loves them. It's not until close exactly half-way through the books the Greeks make it Troy and the actual war starts. Which I don't mind at all, the stories surrounding the buildup are as good as the war itself.
Like most myths, there are at time contradictory stories, other lineages and such that the author must choose one over the other. Fry includes a lot of other interpretations in the footnotes of the book. Some greek mythology fans can get angry at adaptations that don't do their favorite interpretation so I think it was a good way to keep those people at bay and show how comprehensive his knowledge on the subject is.
Fry uses dramatic irony from time to time which I love in mythology retelling, foreshadowing disastrous events yet to come through casual remarks made by the characters.
I love the pronunciation guides in the footnotes. I grew up loving greek mythology but since I grew up reading it all I never knew how to pronounce anything.
The only thing that I found slightly disappointing is some minor events from the Iliad are left out, such as Posiden fighting with the Greeks or Hera seducing her husband to distract him so the Greeks could get the upper hand. They are mostly unimportant, but they are funny, and this book often searches for humor whenever it could, so it would've been fun to include them. Fry's description of events are also a little more technical. You don't get a lot of the big emotions other books on this list give.
Overall this book was amazing, I spent most of one weekend reading it, I couldn't put it down. I can't wait to get my hands on the other two books, Mythos and Heroes. And I hope Stephen Fry doesn't end here but goes on to tell stories of two heroes leaving Troy which make up the Odyssey and Aeneid.
If you have any recommendations, I'd be glad to take them! I already have The Silence of the Girls and The Trojan Women by Pat Barker, A Thousand Ships and Pandora's Box by Natalie Hayes, any books by Mary Renault, Kassandra by Krista Wolfe, Lost in the Funhouse (for short story The Meneliad) by John Barth, House of Names by Colm Toiben, Ithaca Speaks by Luigi Malerba, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zacharey Mason, and the other Stephen Fry myth books on my wishlist. Let me know what you thought of these books, the ones I reviewed or the ones I have yet to read, or the ones you recommend, I love talking about books. If this post does well enough that I think the effort is worth it I might do it again once I get through the other books I listed above.
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