Myths in Literature

Myths tell such interesting and fundamental stories that it's no surprise that mythology has been a rich source of inspiration for authors. Its influence has been evident ever since the ancient Greeks and Romans began telling stories about the gods.

Authors work with mythology in many ways. Some refer to mythological characters or scenes to add flavor to their own works. Some writers will rework mythological styles or themes. Others use ancient myths as a starting point for their own stories. Now that you've begun to study classical mythology, you'll enjoy finding allusions to it in other books and stories.

Because so many literary works refer to the ancient myths, this book can't cover them all. This section barely scratches the surface of the literature that's inspired by mythology. But don't let this stop you from exploring further!

Much literature of the medieval and Renaissance period refers to classical mythology. For example, the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare both wrote versions of the tragic love story of Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan War. Shakespeare also wrote a poem titled Venus and Adonis in 1593. The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and 1321, is packed with classical allusions. For example, in The Inferno, the narrator's guide is Virgil, author of the Aeneid, and the poem is loaded with references to Apollo, Minerva (Athena), the Muses, and the hero Jason, to name just a few.

Later, John Milton adapted the form and themes of classical epic poetry to create his great poem Paradise Lost (1667). Although Paradise Lost is a Christian poem that tells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, Milton admired classical poetry and used it to create a heroic Christian epic. Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock (1712) parodies classical conventions.

In the nineteenth century, classical mythology continued its influence on literature. Percy Bysshe Shelley's play Prometheus Unbound (1820) was inspired by a play of Aeschylus of the same name, but Shelley takes the story in a different direction to reflect the humanism of his own era. Shelley's wife Mary wrote the novel Frankenstein (1818), but did you know that her book's subtitle is The Modern Prometheus? The Romantic poet John Keats wrote poems such as “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer” (1816) and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), which deal with mythological themes. His wellknown poem “Endymion” (1818) begins with the famous line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

When John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, he was not yet twenty-six years old. His friend Percy Shelley blamed the young poet's death on distress after reading a bad review of one of his poems. Shelley wrote “Adonaïs,” a pastoral poem with references to the goddesses Urania and Venus, as an elegy to his friend.

In the twentieth century, James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) used classical mythology in a new way. Joyce based the plot of his novel on the Odyssey (the Roman version of Odysseus's name is Ulysses), creating a modern story that parallels the characters and themes of the ancient epic. Although Ulysses is set in Dublin and takes place over the course of a single day instead of ten years, it patterns itself on the Odyssey. Although the characters have different names, they are reinterpretations of the main characters of the Odyssey. Joyce's novel is brilliant but difficult; a familiarity with classical mythology is essential to understand it.

Many contemporary authors have used classical mythology as a source for their stories. Here's a list of some recent novels inspired by the myths of ancient Greece and Rome:

  • The King Must Die (1958) by Mary Renault. Read this novel for a retelling of the adventures of the young hero Theseus.

  • The Firebrand (1987) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The main character of this novel is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and unheeded prophetess, who recounts the story of the fall of Troy.

  • The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt. This psychological thriller tells the story of a group of students fascinated by their Classics professor and the world of ancient Greece. Their re-enactment of the Dionysian rites leads to tragic results.

  • Troy (2000) by Adèle Geras. This young adult novel (ages fourteen and older) imagines life inside Troy during the Trojan War.

  • Goddess of Yesterday: A Tale of Troy (2002) by Caroline B. Cooney. Another young adult novel, written for readers ages twelve and up, this book retells the events leading up to the Trojan War from the perspective of Anaxandra, a young girl who comes to the court of Menelaus.

  • Last of the Amazons (2002) by Steven Pressfield. The context for this novel is the conflict between the Amazons and Theseus, leader of the Athenians.

  • Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005) by Dan Simmons. If you like science fiction, take a look at these novels, which are packed with classical allusions and set the events of the Iliad and its aftermath on Mars and an alternate Earth.

  • The Songs of the Kings (2004) by Barry Unsworth. This novel retells the story of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. Unsworth imaginatively probes ancient politics and heroes' desire to be immortalized in poetry.

  • The Troy trilogy by David Gemmell. These three novels retell the story of the Trojan War, as familiar mythological characters interact with characters of the author's creation: Lord of the Silver Bow (2006), Shield of Thunder (2007), and Fall of Kings (2009, with Stella Gemmell).

  • Helen of Troy (2006) by Margaret George. This novel imagines the story of Helen's life and the Trojan War from her own point of view.

  • The Cassandra Palmer series by Karen Chance. This contemporary fantasy series, beginning with Touch the Dark (2006), is set amidst conflict between vampires and mages. Cassandra Palmer must learn to deal with the challenges and dangers of being Pythia, the world's foremost clairvoyant.

  • Lavinia (2008) by Ursula K. LeGuin. This novel tells the story of the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojan refugees in Italy from the point of view of the Italian princess who will marry Aeneas.

  • The Power of the Myth (1988), by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, explores how mythology continues to affect people's everyday lives. Discussing everything from Darth Vader to marriage, this book is a must-read if you want to understand how mythology functions in the modern world.

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