Three Myths Retold: Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

While I love the Odyssey, I always dread returning to The Iliad. I just find all the war and posturing and characters to be ash and dust and thorn for me, just weariness and work and pain. The moments of greatness within The Iliad do not lift me like many of the classics that sit behind the cultures in which I was raised. Perhaps it is that with every loved one I bury in my life, with every heap of ashes I scatter in the wind or every coffin lowered into the ground and every prayer book incantation I utter, I care less for Homer’s great epic of war and loss.

Neither do I care much for it as a tale of the folly of men and gods. I knew about this already. I see it in myself.

And my Greek is not strong enough to carry me fully into the scents and sounds of this Aegean tale to give me that sense of the heart of a culture. With Greek, I get more of the Mediterranean air from a few lines of Plato or Paul than this Homeric epic.

Thus it was with somewhat of a selfish motive that, when designing a Western literature guided study for a bright, critical student, I shockingly chose not to reread the Iliad with her, but assigned The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller–which I had never read. A bit of a risk, but my student has both good reading skills and sardonic wit. Our conversation can mock or praise as the text leads us, but will, in any case, be thoughtful. And I knew the book to be well-researched and well-written, so I took the risk.

I am happy to say that the experiment was a success. My student and I each loved The Song of Achilles is, finding it a fresh reading experience. While The Song of Achilles is a modern psychological novel, it is definitely soaked in research and a love for the literature and the world it came from.

Moreover, Miller is able to capture a mythic voice–a story of depth whose primary narrator is able to be human and near to the action while giving a thorough sense of wonder and distance and greatness that a myth requires. Without losing a compelling personal story, a myth retold should invite us to foundational themes in a world touched by the divine or the fates. In The Song of Achilles, I felt the Aegian culture breathe through the text and experienced Homer’s war epic more dynamically than I had ever done before. I was drawn in more personally to mythic moments of the text, like the dangers of hubris and the power of friendship and the capricious nature of the gods. More than this, Miller’s chosen literary themes danced in the story with vivacity. The temptation to entomb what we love, the love of craft, the inhumanity of human endeavours, the loss of self in greatness, and history’s true measure of a Great One–Miller excells at giving this text its own mythic life. She even succeeded in giving me an Achilles that I think is worth remembering in history.

While Miller’s Song is a complex thematic vision, it is the voice of the novel where she has had her greatest success.

Though I hesitate to criticize the great Margaret Atwood, a significant literary voice, it is in the “voice” where she fails with her Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad is Canadian great Margaret Atwood’s sharp, funny retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from a feminist angle. Indeed, the body of the tale is told from Penelope’s perspective and in her voice–a retelling of the epic of reunion from the perspective of Odysseus’ wise and thoughtful wife. At a deeper level–and I am not sure that most readers realize this about the text–the tale is really from the perspective of the maids murdered in the final hours of Odyssey’s manly show of violent virtue, alternating between Penelope’s afterworldly, non-time-bound perspective and a “chorus” that provides some of the narrative background or prophetic sarcasm.

Margaret Atwood is a pretty funny thinker. As usual, her cutting wit shoots through this story. Unfortunately, the creative potentiality of the “chorus”–exploring many different forms and times and spaces–is more grating than gratifying. Perhaps it has an artistic value I have not seen–and perhaps it is strong in the staged performances–but the poetry there is rarely of the skill of the prose. I recognize that I am writing a minority report here. But with a few strong exceptions, I was relieved to return to Penelope’s voice in the prose chapters. 

And, frankly, the deep meaning of the maids comes through in Penelope’s narrative without the moralistic chorus.

This may be a unique text, where Atwood’s sardonic cultural criticism bends the story in a way that keeps the story from living at the front of the reader’s experience. 

Perhaps I am simply impatient in the chorus sections. I can recognize this weakness when I read some dramas–an inability to suspend my disbelief and receive the form.

Even in the prose parts, however, while Penelope forms in my mind as an individual character of note, and even as her netherworld environment provides a humorous-yet-productive background to the tale, this myth retold is hardly a satisfying one. While it is a provocative feminist rereading of the tale, it lacks the subtle critique and generative world-building of Atwood’s best feminist works or her best dystopias. 

And as a return to a Greek tale, it lacks the sheer energy of other rereadings, like Hélène Cixous’ essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” or the invitation to the world and text that popular retellings like the Percy Jackson series can provide. The Penelopiad, full of writing skill in a gorgeously designed book, lacks the best cultural criticism that runs through Atwood’s post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction where she strikes out on her own to remake the world in her own made worlds. 

Ultimately, though, it is in the voice where Atwood’s Penelope falls short. When one has read a myth retold like C.S. LewisTill We Have Faces with Orual’s rich, first-person Greek narrative of self, I simply cannot settle for a mythic voice that does not provide in its tenor what it achieves in its point of view.

Madeleine Miller’s Patroclus, as well, is a living, breathing voice of mythic remembrance and new creation: an outcast, uncertain in love, certain in honour and adoration and ethical risk, a character who lives in me as I live in the text.

Atwood’s myth retold is good, but there is a greatness to Lewis’ Till We Have Faces and Miller’s Song of Achilles that provides a pattern-match of content and form that is deeply rewarding for readers (or at least this reader).

Margaret Atwood is a far more mature writer than Madeleine Miller in this her first novel, and a more literary creator than C.S. Lewis, so it is a surprise to see these words on my own screen. Yet, it is in in Till We Have Faces that we see Lewis in his fullest profile as a writer of what we call “literary fiction”–the genre in which Atwood excels even when she challenges its boundaries, and the genre in which Miller writes even despite her popular reach. We see moments in Lewis of this literary possibility in some of the poetry, at points in Perelandra or “The Weight of Glory”–and even an occasional hint in NarniaTill We Have Faces offers us that full-blooded myth retold in a genre that has brought great richness to the 20th century.

Indeed, it may be the only novel of Lewis’ seriously studied in the English lit university curriculum a generation from now–if university professors can make the leap past the faux-literary Ypres Salient that puts genre fiction at war with literary fiction.

This is a divide that Atwood often bridges–or, I suppose, a boundary that she chooses to transgress as a lifelong reader of science fiction, myth, and fantasy and a writer of “speculative fiction.” As I am someone who spends most of his reading time digging through the reject bin of the lit fic gatekeepers, it is a line I am pleased to see blurred by many of my favourite contemporary women writers beyond Atwood, like Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and (having recently set down their pens) Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. If the stories of gods and miracles are also speculative, Madeleine Miller bridges these worlds well in The Song of Achilles.

Miller’s Song no doubt has imperfections. I was hopeful for a great epic of friendship that is unusual outside of YA literature today–and C.S. Lewis demonstrates in The Four Loves that friendship is a storyline worthy of great treatment (and I wonder if there is a little nod to Lewis’ Narniad in our first meeting of Chiron, the centaur-teacher). Instead, Miller follows Plato’s supposition that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers. Miller does it to grand and troublesome (in an intriguing way) effect, and there is still much to enjoy about the adventure of friendship in this story of love and war. Still, I am looking for something more than romance in our stories for today–though I suppose I might be writing another minority report.

Fortunately, as a myth retold, The Song of Achilles is greater than romance–as it is greater than war or culture or parable or even the legend of legends at the heart of the tale. It is a myth retold, and sits with Till We Have Faces and against The Penelopiad as a model for myth retellers today.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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29 Responses to Three Myths Retold: Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

  1. John Gough says:

    This is a fascinating comparison, Brenton. I agree with you that Margaret Attwood’s attempt at retelling the return of Odysseus is flawed. I found it unengaging, and strident in its contrarian stance to Homer, however flawed Homer’s world of macho heroes is.
    I am unconvinced (based on reviews only, so please take my hesitation with a large dose of salt) that Madeleine Miller needed to recast Homer as she did.
    My first encounter with the “Illiad” was E.V. Rieu’s prose translation (Penguin, around 1960 — I was in Grade 7), and I have reread it, and Rieu’s prose “Odyssey” several times since then as an adult. It breathes to me in the same way the classic 1930s film of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, and many books (fiction and autobiographies and histories) of the Great War (and the American Civil War) breathe to me about the hand-to-hand, body-to-body catastrophe of war.
    Incidentally, I wonder why you refer to the Ypres salient? Ypres was the site of many appalling battles — battles that had to be fought before the war-winning tactics of combined arms — infantry, artillery, tanks, aircraft, intelligence — could be learned and brought into play in the last half of 1918, by the Australian general, Sir John Monash. Not that the US commander, General John “Black Jack” Pershing ever acknowledged this.) But I digress.
    I also agree that C.S. Lewis got it right with his tale of Oruel in, “Till We Have Faces”, his reworking of “Psyche and Eros”.
    Importantly, as you would know, in doing this, Lewis created the genre of an ancient myth retold as if it is being lived by real people in a realistic world. NOT retelling the myth AS myth, which is what Miller and Attwood seem to have done.
    Moreover, Lewis did this before Henry Treece wrote “Electra” or “Jason”. And before Mary Renault wrote “The Bull From the Sea” and “The King Must Die” about Theseus and the Minotaur.
    Remarkably, knowing that so much of Lewis’s fiction derived from his fascination with the Medieval idea of the cosmos, “Till We Have Faces” seems to be the only major work that derives from his initial training in Classics, Ancient Greek and Latin.

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    • So Miller didn’t have to recast the Ilia this way…. but she could. Why not do so?
      The Salient note was just a metaphor, a line of battle. over striking, it seemsI should use the Trojan beachhead

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  2. dpmonahan says:

    I think that while most of Lewis’ fiction was a rush job, TWHF was a story he first conceived of as a teenager and had thought about for a long time.

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  3. danaames says:

    I, too, preferred Virgil to Homer when I read both in college (Rieu translations, both for fun, not for classes). On recent consideration, Odysseus is being seen as much less heroic, but be that as it may… In The Iliad, the bloodshed seemed so very pointless.

    I found this article quite interesting. I can’t remember if I pointed it out to you previously. It seems quite plausible to me, and of course there is the Orthodox connection 🙂 Sorry for the long address; if it doesn’t work, look up “Patitsas Road to Emmaus Journal #52”.

    Click to access 52.THE_OPPOSITE_OF_WAR_IS_NOT_PEACE.pdf

    Dana

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  4. danaames says:

    Well lookie there – it embedded. No web search required.
    D.

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I haven’t read the Attwood or Miller retellings, but would heartily recommend Robert Graves’s Homer’s Daughter (1955), which I first read not so very long ago – and ought to reread in tandem with rereading the Odyssey, to get more of his detailed play with the latter.

    As another nudge to rereading the Iliad, I would recommend Giuseppe Pezzini’s fascinating essay, ‘The Gods in (Tolkien’s) Epic: Classical Patterns of Divine Interaction’ in Tolkien and the Classical World, edited by Hamish Williams (Walking Tree Press, 2021) – which leaves me eager to see his forthcoming book, Tolkien and the Mystery of Literary Creation.

    I remember enjoying Mary Renault’s The Bull From the Sea, but not whether I read The King Must Die as well, but have just bought a copy and hope to read it, soon.

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    • Hi David, I have put Graves on my tbr, never having heard of Renault, unfortunately. It was Pezzinni’s piece that made me realize I had not seen an equivalent study of Lewis. I didn’t know that was coming but I look forward to it!

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  6. Matthew Porter-Valbracht says:

    So “shipping” goes all the way back to Plato then? And just when I was going to deplore this modern tendency of demeaning friendship by trying to make every relationship sexual.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    John Gough’s observation, “Lewis created the genre of an ancient myth retold as if it is being lived by real people in a realistic world”, is rich food for thought – and further reading! Checking the date of Robert Graves’s Homer’s Daughter (1955) in Wikipedia (rather than digging up my copy), my eye was caught by his novel, The Golden Fleece (London: Cassell, 1944 – as Hercules, My Shipmate (New York: Creative Age Press, 1945) – a book I have never seen, but which gets me wondering, how does – or doesn’t – it fit in? And the whole history of Heinrich Schliemann’s undertaking to show the historicity of Homer’s subjects on the one hand, and the ancient ‘euhemerist’ approach to mythological figures and events on the other. How are these part of the background, of Lewis and others, in their ” lived by real people in a realistic world” approach(es)?

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    • Because I had loved the Classics Comics Illustrated edition of the Golden Fleece, i tried Graves when I was young. But it never caught for me.
      When I talk about “myths retold,” I realize I really mean what I said about the story above and what John Gough says. So I honestly don’t love the basic paraphrasing, like some of what Roger Lancelyn Green does.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I had not registered how much Green did with Greek myth, till checking his Wikipedia article, just now, listing seven books with solely Greek content – Tales of the Greek Heroes: Retold From the Ancient Authors (1958), The Tale of Troy: Retold from the Ancient Authors (1958), Mystery at Mycenae: An Adventure Story of Ancient Greece (1959), The Luck of Troy (1961), Tales the Muses Told: Ancient Greek Myths (1965), Ancient Greece (John Day Co. 1969), and The Tale of Thebes (Cambridge University Press 1977) – ! I’d never read any till I read some aloud en famille – I’d have to scour the shelves to see which, but I remember being impressed by how he had digested and integrated his retellings in a sort of imaginative mythography. I must say, I have also enjoyed (I think first aloud en famille, too) Hawthorne’s A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1851) and Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) (if indeed I’ve read both right through…), and certainly Kingsley’s The Heroes: Greek Fairy Tales (1856).

        I wonder how much Till We Have Faces may be indebted in various ways to the very different retelling of non-Greek myth, Lilith by George MacDonald.

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        • If I ever comment on Lilith … it will be because I have reached a new ascendency of knowledge! I struggle with that book. No idea what’s going on. But I have no doubt that GeoMac brought in all of our shared literary and religious tradition.

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          • John Gough says:

            Indeed, Brenton. Both “Lilith” and “Phantastes” challenge readers. Their plots can be detailed: the relevant Wikipedia articles do this well.
            But two things are unclear. Where MacDonald found his images and relationships, and what he meant (and the books are so potent that he surely did mean something).
            I wonder if there are any reliable scholarly works on either book, such as a thorough and reputable annotated edition?
            I assume there are MacDonald scholars.
            The Wikipedia article on “Lilith” provides NIneteenth century evocations of “Lilith” among the Pre-Raphaelites, and Robert Browning — I am sure MacDonald drew on these, but probably knew the more apocryphal Medieval rabbinical folklore. The Old Testament seems to have little about “Lilith” that is not speculative, or reading-between-the-lines, and “Lilith” as Adam’s first wife does not seem part of the canonic Creation story (stories).
            Having checked my own plot-notes from re-reading Lilith, it seems that MacDonald was making a mash-up of folk tales, Classical mythology, the Old Testament, and Revelations. (Plus all the dreams-of-heaven stories such as Piers Ploughman, and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” Parts.)
            (Incidentally, MacDonald was himself mightily influenced by Novalis, but I don’t read German, and struggle to know what Novalis wrote. But that is another layer of academic challenge for anyone trying to elucidate MacDonald’s “Lilith”.)
            His novel seems to offer a vision of an apocalypse, a cosmic battle of Good against Evil, with a hope of redemption.
            The world-on-the-other-side (of a magic mirror, and of a cupboard — hello, Narnia, and Nesbit) clearly inspired Lewis’s allegory “The Great Divorce”, in which MacDonald plays Vergil to Lewis’s Dante.
            Considering that MacDonald wrote “Lilith” when he was about 75, in 1895, it seems a remarkably recent book to be so wildly and religiously inventive.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I have never managed to try to dig into MacDonald’s likely – or even known? – source(s) for Lilith lore – though you’d think someone has (without my encountering it). I really like Gershom Sholem’s collection of his contributions to the Jewish Encyclopedia, which has some great stuff on Lilith and Jewish demonology, but I’d have to check if he lists any English-language sources early enough for MacDonald to see. He somewhere has some kind words for A.E. Waite’s attempts to study Jewish mysticism and lore (e.g., The Secret Tradition in Israel) – which was a source for Charles Williams (whose fascinating 1925 poem about Lilith was published in Heroes & Kings – sadly not yet scanned or transcribed online, as far as I can discover, but recently reprinted and so probably in various libraries). Interestingly, when in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (ch. 8) Lewis has Mr. Beaver say the White Witch “comes from your father Adam’s […] first wife, her they call Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn” he goes on to say, ” there isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch” – suggesting that whenever Lilith was “Adam’s first wife” they did not procreate a half-human ancestor of Lilith. If this is merely compatible with The Magician’s Nephew, it suggests some early connection of Charn with earth via Lilith somehow analogous to that of Narnia! “Jinn” also suggests Arabic/Islamic lore as a possible source for Lilith matter…

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Re. Novalis, his (unfinished) novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen is available iin translation online: John Owen’s 1842 American version, scanned in the Internet Archive and transcribed in Project Gutenberg. There’s at least one other more recent translation, by Palmer Hilty (1990) – which seems to be out of print but available second hand and presumably in various libraries. Having heard wonderful lectures on it by S.S. Prawer, I feel idiotic for neither steeling myself to try it in German nor reading it in translation, yet. (Maybe I should try the German LibriVox version in combination with the Owen translation…)

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  8. John Gough says:

    Thanks, David. This is all very interesting. Parallels between Lewis’s “Till We Have Faces”, and MacDonald’s “Lilith” would be interesting. However, I am not sure MacDonald is retelling any myth, but devising fantasy episodes of his own, albeit using the Old Testament name “Lilith” (an enigmatic character in the Old Testament, I think, probably owing something to Sumerian mythology that predated and contributed to the Old Testament account of the Creation and aftermath up to the Flood, and then the story of Abraham and the subsequent Hebrews).
    Let me restate that in “Till We Have Face”, Lewis retells the myth of Psyche and Eros (a tale within the Isis-mystery-cult story of Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass”, if I remember correctly, a book I have only read in Robert Graves’ translation). (Indeed: the Wikipedia article on “The Golden Ass” gives many details and connections). But the WAY Lewis tells it is the key.
    Lewis’s version dramatizes the Psyche-Eros myth as if it is actually happening between a real human and a real god, in historical times (Classical Greek), but in a region some distance from Greece. The Greek character called “the Fox” is a conduit between the Greeks’ mythology and the events happening around him. (If I remember correctly, the Fox even mentions Plato, or a distant Greek philosopher who the reader knows is Plato.)
    To summarize, Lewis’s retelling is in a mainly realistic human world (not the human world of the original myth), on the borders of known human culture — as if the myth is REALLY HAPPENING, including the human encounter with a god.
    This is different from the way other authors you mention, David, retell (Greek) myth — translating, and making sometimes, a coherent novel-like account of the myth, WITHIN the human-and-gods world of the original myth.
    Robert Graves, as you point out, wrote many novelizing versions of Greek myths. These parallel his novelizations of actual history, such as “I, Claudius” and sequel, and “Sergeant Milton’s Wife” and “Count Belisarius”. Similarly, Graves’ novel “Homer’s Daughter” offers a (fanciful) novel-as-context to explain how the Greek epics were written, albeit, NOT within the human-and-gods world of the epics, but the almost-known world of pre-Classical Greece.
    Graves’ novelizations-of-myth contrast with his translation-plus-commentary compendium “Greek Mythology”. This aims to compile each myth into a coherent story (possibly in “chapters” dealing with longer narratives such as Jason and the Argonauts and Golden Fleece, and Theseus and the Minotaur, etc.), including sources, and (controversially) Graves’ interpretation of each myth in terms of a “battle” between female fertility deities (also explored in Graves’ fascinating and controversial “The White Goddess” that goes far beyond the Greek world to explore the mythology) and the masculine sky gods and goddesses of Olympus.
    Nonetheless, Graves is unable to make a coherent story, from start to finish, largely because the Greek myths always were fragmentary, and varied from place to place, with local hero-gods, such as Theseus for Athens. The Greeks never had “Church Fathers” who shaped a coherent “Testament”, in the way that both “Old” and “New” Testaments were edited by committees of scholars to establish “canonic” versions. (Ditto “The Koran”, made some while after Mahomed’s time by committees of scholars, as discussed by one of Tom Holland’s books.)
    Graves’ novelizing of myths mixes dramatization with translation-cum-retelling.
    By contrast, Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Tanglewood Tales” and “The Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys”), and Charles Kingsley (“The Heroes”) were Nineteenth century translator-retellers of Greek mythology, for children. They anticipate later translator-retellers such as Howard Pyle, in America, and — as your comments highlighted — Roger Lancelyn Green, a university academic, student of C.S. Lewis, Inkling, co-biographer of Lewis, and prolific translator-reteller.
    Roger Lancelyn Green is a remarkable figure, but neglected. His fantasy novel “The Land of the Lord High Tiger” is long out of print, and hard to find much about, except that (reported in GoodReads) it includes a railway station called “Narnia North”, and mentions “Screwtape” — obvious homages to Lewis.
    Green’s version of “King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table” is, in my opinion, the definitive children’s version, with stunning wood-cut-like black-and-white paper-cut illustrations by Lotte Reinger. (I confess to not knowing Howard Pyle’s versions of “King Arthur”: USA books were almost impossible to get in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s while I was growing up, because of copyright barriers between North America and Britain-and-Australia.) Green effortlessly reshapes Mallory’s version while including “Gawain and the Green Knight” (also translated by Tolkien) and “Gawain and the Loathly Lady”, and a version of “Tristram and Iseult”, and versions of “Percival” and “Galahad” (but not “Lohengrin”). Green’s modern English has a solemnity that rings as true as Mallory’s.
    Green’s Norse retelling, “The Saga of Asgard” (also known under other titles), with strong illustrations by Brian Wildsmith, is also a strong and coherent retelling from Norse Creation to the Day of Ragnarok and Gotterdamerung and the promise of rebirth.
    Green’s version of “Robin Hood” combines many tales and ballads into a cohesive narrative of the famous outlaw. (Again, I confess to now knowing Howard Pyle’s “Robin Hood”.)
    I apologise for such a long “Comment”, but felt that Roger Lancelyn Green deserved some detail, and I believe it is important to distinguish retelling-myth-as-if-real-“now”, contrasted with retelling-myth-within-the-myth-world-of-heroes-and-gods.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thanks for this! One gets the impression that Green is both appreciated – I see several of the retellings are in print from Penguin (there is a even an ELT Graded Reader adaptation of at least one!) – and, in many ways, neglected. (I wish I had bought more of his less familiar books second-hand, when I saw them…!)

      An intriguing point in common of Lilith and Till We Have Faces is that they are both first-person narratives, in which the (ostensible) writer comes to truer self-knowledge. It is an interesting question how much Lilith is more a demonological person than the subject of a myth, yet, again, Lilith as the first wife of Adam could be considered the most famous thing told about her, a sort of (apocryphal) myth, which MacDonald retells in (as far as I know) a highly original way. I really should reread them both again, carefully, but the ‘dream’ element in Lilith (if I recall correctly) is very different from what you point out in Till We Have Faces: “the myth is REALLY HAPPENING, including the human encounter with a god.” I can’t think of any “novel-like account of the myth, WITHIN the human-and-gods world of the original myth” that is like that (though I’d love to have suggestions thrown at me, as I have not read that widely – e.g., I like what I recall Renault doing in The Bull from the Sea with Theseus’s ‘experiences’, but it is not the same sort of “human encounter with a god”). One striking aspect of this is, that Till We Have Faces (arguably) has the form of an ostensible translation – Arnom, at the end, appends a note to “this roll”, which he hopes a “stranger who intends the journey to Greece” will take with him – which we may surmise has happened, with an eventual English translation centuries later (though Lewis does not explicitly present this conceit, but an authorial introductory Note instead).

      I have not read Graves’ “translation-plus-commentary compendium ‘Greek Mythology'”, and only browsed around in The White Goddess, but your description makes me think of Alfred Duggan’s Winter Quarters (1956), which I have only read in its Dutch translation as De Wrekende Godin [The Avenging Goddess] – which is another first-person (ostensibly) autobiographical narrative – though again, as far as I recall, once more without “the human encounter with a god” (or goddess).

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      • John Gough says:

        Excellent, David. Yes, Alfred Duggan was another who retells in special ways, but I couldn’t recall his name, and confess I have not read him.
        Also, William Morris deserves mention as a Nineteenth century reteller, alongside Hawthorne and Kingsley (and, I am sure, others).
        It is a ling time since I reread “Lilith”, and I did not keep detailed notes, or explore mythical origins, such as an Old Testament story of “Lilith” as Adam’s “first wife”. I would be interested in any discussion of MacDonald’s Lilith-character and the Old Testament Lilith-story.
        You are right that Renault’s Theseus does not confront Poseidon the Earth-Shaker directly. Instead, the power of the god is often present, or felt, and the fear and reverence the human Theseus has is clear.
        You may be interested to know that, following “Till We Have Faces”, a kind of genre emerged in children’s books where ancient myths and gods burst into modern realistic life.
        I explored this in part of my PhD thesis on Penelope Lively, the British children’s and adult novelist, exploring her books (children and a handful of adult) up to 1985, when I finished by thesis. (Since then she has been almost exclusively an adult writer.)
        Searching for antecedents to Lively’s children’s novels, “The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy”, and “The Whispering Knights”, where ancient forces of legend/myth (the Wild Hunt, and Sleeping Knights ready to defend a kingdom) burst into the modern world, I realised that Alan Garner’s “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” (1960) included considerable quantities of Norse mythology, and the children in that novel, and a Merlin-like figure, and elves and dwarves (reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings”, superficially) battle black elves and the forces of the Battle of Ragnarok. Ditto in the sequel “The Moon of Gomrath”.
        In my thesis I referred to this as the “Garner genre”, and found others, some earlier than Garner, and others afterwards. I did not claim that Garner influenced later authors, but feel that his work freed subsequent authors to develop their own versions of this use of myth-fantasy.
        Le Guin’s “The Tombs of Atuan” has Ged confronting the Old Ones, to free the priestess intended to be sacrificed to them (as I recall).
        In Australia, Patricia Wrightson wrote several books with modern realistic settings in which human characters encounter ancient mythic forces of Aboriginal belief, such as “The Nargun and the Stars”, where the “Nargun” is a primordial spirit-creature who acts like a large powerful living rock; and in the “Wirrun” trilogy, when an ordinary Aboriginal human encounters a water spirit, and eventually becomes a kind of land-spirit himself — an apotheosis of a hero.
        Similarly, Patricia Miles “The Gods in Winter” tells what happens then the myth of Persephone bursts into a modern realistic setting, and the ancient gods confront modern humans.
        Pauline Clarke’s remarkable children’s novel “The Two Faces of Silenus” (1972) tells what happens when two ordinary children visiting Spoleto release the pagan demigod Silenus from a statue-fountain. The children in the story each have a life-changing encounter with Silenus, while he is pursued by a reanimated Medusa.
        Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence is based on the cosmic battle between ancient forces of Light (Good) and Dark (Evil), loosely based on Celtic ideas, although profoundly Manichean in theology. This battle is played out between Old Ones on either side, among humans. In my opinion, dramatic and moving as Cooper’s novel sequence is, she throws it all away by having the forces of the Light win (of course), while having guaranteed that the human children caught up in the conflict would never be harmed, and at the very end these children have their memories wiped. Moreover, the children are sternly told NOT to expect a messiah, not to expect Arthur, or Drake, to come back to their rescue. (Cooper, at least at that stage of her life, happily told stories of god-like forces, while being a staunch atheist. Hmmm, …)
        Finally (there are many more, but I have rambled enough), Diana Wynne Jones in “The Eight Days of Luke” (1975) is about the ancient Norse gods bursting into a modern realistic world. The character “Luke” is actually “Loki”, and eventually the gods all ride into Valhalla over the rainbow bridge.
        Jones’ “The Homeward Bounders” (1985) opens with Prometheus have his liver torn out or Zeus’s eagle, and goes onto to blend modern realistic people with ancient gods refigured as shadowy forces on a vast cosmic board-game-like conflict.
        But “Till We Have Faces” was first, more or less!

        Liked by 1 person

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