Treasures on the shelves: Retellings of the story

Published 12:41 pm Thursday, January 27, 2022

Every month when I order books for our library system, I notice there seems to be a new title being promoted as a “retelling,” or an old story told a new way. A successful retelling shifts the traditional perspective, bringing new elements of the story to the fore. Sometimes this is a classic tale, such as Jane Eyre, that has been moved to a modern setting, as in Margot Livesay’s “The Flight of Gemma Hardy.” Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” gets a remix in Bethany Morrow’s “So Many Beginnings”, with the March sisters portrayed as emancipated young African American women during the Civil War. Other times, there is a blending of an old tale with a new genre, such as Marissa Meyer’s science fiction series The Lunar Chronicles which takes fairy tale heroines like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and puts them in a futuristic world full of cyborgs and high-tech intrigue.

The retelling or “reimagining” genre had been fairly successful for several years but it was the 2018 publication of Madeline Miller’s “Circe” that broke it wide-open. The author, who has a classics degree, brought a supporting character from “The Odyssey’ forward and let her tell her story in her own voice. And what a voice it was! The book was a massive bestseller, became a book club favorite and is being adapted for a series on HBOMax. The success of “Circe” led to a surge of retelling titles, often involving a marginalized character from myths and/or legends.

Mythology is a rich topic for retellings as myths portray the eternal truths of the human condition and can be easily adapted to the cultural ebb and flow of any era. One of the best was “The Witch’s Heart” by Genevieve Gornichec, who writes about Angrboda, a character from Norse mythology who was married to the trickster god Loki. She has the power of foresight and knows that Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, is near. How she and the other characters deal with this information forms the core of the story and Gornichec writes movingly about the emotional burden of knowing the future and how to live fully while the world you know is falling away.

However, there is one book, published in 1982, that in many ways was one of the first retellings. “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley is the Arthurian legend told from the perspective of the female characters of the famous Celtic myths. Queen Guinevere (Gwenhyfar in the novel), Morgaine, and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, are the central voices of the story. Bradley skillfully expands these women into fully dimensional characters, with sacrifice, allegiance and personal power explored from a female perspective.

I read this book in the late eighties and it has remained a personal favorite ever since. Several years ago when I was living in Richmond, I was browsing in Barnes and Noble one Sunday afternoon and saw a woman with the book in her arms. Assuming she was buying the book because she hadn’t read it, I couldn’t resist walking over and telling her how much she would enjoy it. She told me she had already read it twice and was finally buying her own copy. “This is the kind of book that finds you” she said.

I couldn’t agree more. No matter whether it’s a new story or an old one, it does seem that our favorite books have a way of finding us.

Holly Howze is the branch manager for the Ripberger Public Library located in Kenbridge. She can be reached at lcplsbooks@gmail.com.