I have a longstanding love of great epics and mythology. Lately I’ve had the good fortune to read several books which reimagine traditionally male-dominated epic tales with a female narrative voice. Here are three of my favourites:
The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
Based on The Odyssey, Homer
Probably the most famous story in Greek mythology is that of Odysseus, the mastermind of Trojan Horse that led to Troy’s defeat, who then spent years trying to get back to his son and his wife Penelope. But while Odysseus was fighting a Cyclops, resisting the temptations of the deadly sirens, and escaping imprisonment by nymphs, what was Penelope doing… aside from waiting patiently and faithfully for her husband to return? Margaret Atwood has some ideas, and gives them voice in a morbidly comedic and cynical retelling of Homer’s epic. The story divides itself between the events of Penelope’s lifetime, her musings from the afterlife, and the Greek Chorus-style interjections of her twelve nameless maids, killed by Odysseus on his return home. And unlike most epics, it clocks in at 176 pages on my ebook version, making it is a very manageable read.
Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
Based on the Aeneid, Virgil
Aeneas flees from the destruction of Troy, and in a 12-book epic poem he explores, adventures, and fights his way across the Mediterranean in order to eventually found the city of Rome. While Virgil did create powerful female characters in the Aeneid—such as the Carthaginian queen Dido—Lavinia seems to have been overlooked. She does not speak a single word in the poem, but is a bargaining chip given to Aeneas in marriage, and over which war breaks out when another of her suitors objects. So Ursula K. Le Guin, being the badass that she is, learned Latin so that she could read the Aeneid in its original language and wrote us this beautiful, Lavinia-centered novel. Here Aeneas’ wife is brought to life as a powerful force behind Rome’s founding, in a novel that honours and complements the spirit of the Aeneid.
The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Based on the Mahabharata, Vyasa
Divakaruni writes in the introduction to The Palace of Illusions that though Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata has powerful, interesting female characters, their stories never seemed to get quite the same fully fleshed out treatment as the male characters. She reimagines the Mahabharata, focusing on the legendary Panchaali: princess of Panchaal, born from fire and fated to bring about the destruction of her father’s rivals. Divakaruni follows Panchaali’s remarkable life, from her unusual birth, to her marriage to five husbands and her building of their magnificent home, the titular Palace of Illusions. Of these three retellings, her character is most powerful and important within the original text, making her story the most dramatic and action-packed one here.
Do you have any favourite retellings of epic tales?