Helen of Troy was said to have the face that launched a thousand ships. Greek mythology has similarly launched countless retellings—and I, for one, am here for it.
Every culture has myths that are returned to repeatedly. They tell us much about what a specific culture values and what people and practices they wish to be emulated. Greek mythology tends to focus on deities, mythological creatures, and legendary heroes. Largely an oral tradition, the myths were eventually captured in epic poems, some of which are extant today. (But for a meditation on all that has been lost, check out the new Anthony Doerr novel.)
What has survived over the centuries remains rich source material for modern authors. Retellings give new life to the familiar, thanks to updated settings, gender-swapped roles, or unexpected twists. The stories are familiar, but the lessons we learn from retellings feel fresh.
Thankfully, you don’t need to be familiar with the original myths in order to enjoy a retelling. In fact, if you find mythology intimidating, the books on this list make an excellent starting point. However, if you want to go deeper, check out D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths or Edith Hamilton’s classic text Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. We also delved into reading classics in MMD Book Club, for those looking for tips on getting started.
This list of Greek myth and Classic text retellings includes the older and more readily recognizable, as well as several that are brand new, all covering a variety of genres. If you’re looking for a new twist on an old tale, I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
20 books inspired by Greek mythology and Classic texts
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This reimagining of the Trojan War emphasizes the humanity of oft-mythologized characters, bringing these larger-than-life figures down to earth. In this version, Achilles and Patroclus are lovers and the prophecy of Achilles’s death looms over all their interactions. Miller offers a 21st century perspective while honoring the original work with strong, poetic writing. Audiophile alert: Miller’s work is fantastic in this format. More info →
The story begins with a murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. But how much of his story is really what it seems? The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. Opinions differ widely on Tartt’s debut novel: it’s a compelling—and chilling—tale, but there’s not a single likable character. More info →
There have been about 60 translations of Homer’s work over the centuries, all by men, until 2017 when it was translated by the first woman. Written in modern iambic pentameter, Emily Wilson’s take gives new life to the epic. Claire Danes narrates the audiobook. More info →
Penelope was hailed as an ideal wife through all she endured in Odysseus’s absence while he fought in the Trojan War and then after his ruinous return. This short novel asks what Penelope’s experience was really like, whether she was faithful, and why Odysseus hanged twelve of her maids. Margaret Atwood applies herself to solving the mystery of what actually happened so long ago. More info →
This story is not always easy to read (hello, eight-line edit
) but the structure—telling the story of a marriage first from the husband’s perspective, and later, his wife’s—is brilliant, and serves Groff’s story so well. It turns out Lotto doesn’t know Mathilde as well as he thought he did. The title alone gives some indication about Groff’s inspiration for this story, although it’s not a classic retelling. The idea of the Fates and Furies is pure Greek tragedy, however, and there’s also some nods via playwright Lotto’s work, which is largely based on the myths. If you like to geek out over symbolism, this novel has it by the bucketful (just one reason this would make an excellent book club pick). More info →
This YA fantasy retelling combines the story of Hades and Persephone with that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Disappearances aren’t unusual in the small town of Bone Gap so no one is initially troubled when young Roza went missing. Except for Finn. He witnessed her kidnapping from the cornfields but he has prosopagnosia, which means he can’t remember the face of the man who took her. Laura Ruby explores beauty, loss, forgiveness, and what’s beneath the surface of the face we present to the world. More info →
This National Book Award-winning novel follows a Mississippi family living in dire poverty during the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Esch, the 14-year-old pregnant narrator, turns to the tale of Medea and Jason. An unusual source of comfort to be sure. Ward’s beautiful prose contrasts starkly with the pain and grit of her story, though she doesn’t leave her characters—or her readers—without hope. (Some of the content is undeniably brutal; content warnings include dogfighting, child abuse, sexual assault, and alcoholism.) More info →
This modern retelling of Antigone
was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and powerfully probes themes of love, political allegiance, and terrorism. I’m not sure I would have realized this was rooted in the Greek myth if I hadn’t been told: Shamsie’s story feels modern, timely, and incredibly relevant to current events. I was hooked from the first line: “Isma was going to miss her flight.“ A beautiful, stirring novel with so much to contemplate and discuss. More info →
Part Grapes of Wrath
, part Huckleberry Finn
: this tough and tender coming-of-age story (and Odyssey
retelling) focuses on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river. A great story, beautifully told. More info →
This fun novel—and MMD Book Club
favorite—combines three unexpected elements to great effect: World War I, a love story, and Greek mythology. It begins with Aphrodite and Ares walking into a swanky Manhattan hotel during WWII, and soon enough Aphrodite’s husband Hephaestus challenges her to show him what love really looks like. She obliges, and takes the reader back in time to meet four young lovers in 1917 Britain, showing her fellow gods how each couple fell in love, and what they mean to each other. It sounds unlikely but the interesting narrative structure totally works. More info →
Pat Barker retells The Iliad
from the point of view of Briseis, a young Trojan queen who is enslaved by Achilles; she is his reward for a military victory. The Trojan women have a complicated relationship with their Greek captors and Briseis is no exception. What these women endure is brutal; Barker doesn’t gloss over the violence of war or the treatment of those enslaved. A follow-up book, The Women of Troy
, was just published in August. More info →
You’ve never encountered The Iliad
like this before. Presenting the rise and fall of Troy, writer, actor, and humorist Stephen Fry has a knack for making Greek mythology compulsively readable. Or listenable, in my case. I especially appreciated how he constantly assures his listener to sit back, relax, and enjoy the stories. These reimagined myths feel like bedtime stories for grownups; it’s easy to get lost in the tales of valiant heroes and dastardly villains, which feel by turns fresh and familiar. More info →
This twisty psychological thriller weaves in numerous references to literature and Greek mythology. It begins when Mariana, a group psychotherapist grieving the recent death of her husband, receives a frantic call from her niece Tara saying her friend and floormate has been murdered. When Mariana travels to investigate, the clues lead her straight to the charismatic Greek Tragedy professor Edward Fosca and his secret Cambridge society known as the Maidens, but proving the case might destroy her. (Content warning for the obvious triggers that accompany a murder mystery, plus self-harm and brief graphic scenes.) More info →
A fresh, feminist reimagining of the Trojan War’s origins, told from the perspective of two Spartan princesses. Privileged sisters Helen and Klytemnestra are Spartan royalty, but how much power do the most powerful women in Sparta wield? Not much. In this realistic retelling, Heywood imagines the inner lives of the Spartan princesses as they come of age, marry powerful men to better Sparta’s future, and become mothers. Heywood paints a vivid portrait of both their everyday life and the major events of Greek mythology, like the competition Helen’s father held for her hand. Heywood paints the sisters as dear to each other and shows how, though they had little control over the significant choices that shaped their lives, they faced them with admirable tenacity. More info →
Everyone knows everyone else’s business in the fictional town of Olympus, especially when it comes to the notorious Briscoe family. The clan is “a walking collection of deadly sins,” and due to patriarch Peter’s philandering, his children populate several households in town. When prodigal son March returns home after a years-long exile imposed after sleeping with his sister-in-law, he sets a devastating chain of events in motion. Though the story spans a mere six days, several lifetimes’ worth of secrets are revealed in that time, and the ensuing consequences to the family and their town are irrevocable. It’s featured in One Great Book Volume V Book 11
. (Numerous content warnings apply, including domestic violence.) More info →
“Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic.” Haynes seeks to upend that familiar narrative in this retelling of the Trojan War myth that centers the voices of women, girls, and the three goddesses whose feud started it all. While not shying away from the brutality of the ancient narrative, Haynes, a former stand-up comedian, laces her often difficult tale with a dark edge of humor. Nowhere is this more evident than in Penelope’s story, which unfolds as a series of gloriously snarky letters to her husband Odysseus. More info →
A reimagining of Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses, which contains over 250 Greek myths. Here we have 53 short stories (some very
short), each of which gets a new twist or reinterpretation. Like so many of the novels on this list, Mason gets inside these ancient characters’ heads, showing us the situations from their first-person perspectives, and making them feel human to modern readers. The loosely connected tales highlight the original work’s theme of metamorphosis or transformation. More info →
If you don’t remember Lavinia from The Aeneid
, that’s because she never spoke a word. Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her science fiction, decided to give her a voice and we are all better for it. Lavinia, the daughter of a king, has a good life until suitors begin to appear and the prophesy is issued: she must marry a foreigner, she’ll be the cause of war, and her husband is destined to live only a short time. She decides to chart her own course instead and live a life Virgil could never have imagined. More info →
Several of Tóibín’s works put fresh spins on classical tales. More loosely inspired by The Oresteian Trilogy than a strict retelling, this narrative follows King Agamemnon three years after he ordered his daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed in order to win the Trojan War, and then went off to war himself. His wife Queen Clytemnestra has spent that time plotting his murder, and his daughter and son have their own decisions to make. Longing, betrayal, revenge—this story has it all. More info →
Often cited as C. S. Lewis’s greatest work, here he retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis said he was haunted by the source material all his life, because he was struck by how illogical some of the main characters’ actions were. By recasting the myth as the tale of two mortal princesses caught in a love triangle, he explores devotion and loss, dedication and betrayal, and the different ways we can love. To hear more about this book, listen to What Should I Read Next episode 27, “Books good enough to make you turn off the tv (even if you love tv)
,” in which Kendra Adachi names this a lifetime favorite novel. More info →
Have you read any notably great myth retellings? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section!
P.S. Check out 20 spellbinding fairytale retellings to get lost in and 30 Jane Austen-inspired books for Janeites of all ages.
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