Writers have always come back to older texts, finding new twists on old legends. Jean Rhys and James Joyce weren’t the first in the Western tradition to do it, when Rhys reimagined Jane Eyre’s doomed Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea and Joyce sent Odysseus walking the streets of Dublin in Ulysses. Virgil, Chaucer, and Shakespeare all found the roots of some of their plots in stories from other writers. Even now, with more stringent concepts of originality and plagiarism, adaptations of classic texts are a healthy part of our literary ecosystem, from Hogarth Press’s Shakespeare adaptation series to an ever-expanding array of Jane Austen homages.
Retelling old stories is not just a chance to revisit familiar and beloved characters or settings, but to bring out something new. Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird is an uncanny take on the Snow White fairy tale and delves into the politics of racial passing. Emily Wilson’s much-celebrated translation of The Odyssey uses its language to draw attention to the hypocrisies within the original text, while picking a fight with centuries of misogynist translation. In adaptations, writers can expand the breadth of a text or a narrative, to say something about their own historical period — see Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, at once a crushing portrayal of women during the Trojan War and women in 1980s East Germany — and to shed new light on the original text.
We’re living in a moment when people are highly conscious of identity, a cultural crisis point where white supremacy and patriarchy are facing off against newly invigorated anti-racist and feminist movements. Unsurprisingly, our literature is engaging with this. And when it comes to adapting classics for contemporary readers, the ways authors bring a 21st-century understanding of identity politics to their original texts can illuminate, change, interrogate, or muddle the originals. Often, they do several of these things at once.
This year, three new novels have reimagined ancient epics: Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife retells Beowulf, the 10th-century Old English poem, through the eyes of two women from the text; Madeline Miller’s Circe gives us Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of the sorceress who is first Odysseus’s enemy and then his lover; Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls plays a similar trick with the Iliad, making Briseis, the enslaved princess whom Achilles and Agamemnon fight over, the protagonist.
Stories that have been elected to the Western canon — whether or not you believe the canon should exist — come with heavy baggage.
When writers adapt Homer or Beowulf, they are in effect rewriting two things: the words on the page, and the centuries of cultural criticism and import that accompany them. Stories that have been elected to the Western canon — whether or not you believe the canon should exist — come with heavy baggage, the cultural weight of centuries of telling them and talking about them and deciding what they were and were not about. Writers aiming for a feminist adaptation, for example, have to wrestle not only with the structural and textual misogyny of a text written in an inevitably more misogynistic time, but also with the inherent misogyny of modern scholarship and the literary canon.
That’s why we so often see adaptations that blossom from exasperation with existing scholarship, like Headley’s The Mere Wife, which was spurred, she told NPR, by a repeated mistranslation from the original text of the word æglæca: “In the early English translations it was translated for Beowulf as ‘hero’ and for Grendel as ‘monster,’ and for Grendel’s mother as ‘wretch of a woman’ or ‘hag.’ But it’s the same word.” Miller, in an essay for Lit Hub explaining her choice to write Circe, discusses not only the Odyssey itself but the way she studied it for years after first reading it, in classrooms where she had “to constantly negotiate my own place.”
Many adaptations that wrestle with both a classic’s inherent issues and its cultural significance do so by expanding the internal universe and perspective of the story, giving othered or nonexistent figures (people of color, women, queer people) agency and insight. Headley, Miller, and Barker each approach their chosen text differently — Miller keeps her ancient setting and tells the story of Circe dipping in and out of Odysseus’s famous narrative, while Headley takes the Danish mead hall of Beowulf and transforms it into a modern American suburb; Barker blends the two, giving her ancient characters in their ancient setting modern British parlance and slang — but the basic impulse to present an old story with a new voice remains the same.
Grendel and his nameless monster of a mother are the inexplicable villains of Beowulf, rarely described, only known as terrifying creatures who threaten the life and livelihood of the citizens within Heorot Hall. In The Mere Wife, Headley transforms the mother into Dana: a military vet hiding in the wild with her ambiguously monstrous, good-hearted son (known as Gren). Dana’s foil is Willa, the glittering ice queen of the suburbs, a new take on Beowulf’s Queen Wealhþeow.
The Mere Wife, like Beowulf, is a story about monsters, but it is also a story about how monsters are constructed. Dana and her mysterious son are people of color living on the fringes of society, driven out by the institutions — the military, American society — that created them. When Gren first wanders into Herot Hall, he is a child playing, rather than a destructive force. But Willa and Ben Woolf, Headley’s version of Beowulf, create a monster out of Gren all the same, using the very modern weapons of the press and a police hunt.
In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother does not speak, but Headley’s Dana is all too conscious of what the world will make of her son: “I saw his body categorized as an enemy body,” she tells us, and then shortly after adds, “To me, he looks like my son. To everyone else? I don’t know. A wonder? A danger? A boy? A boy with brown skin? Any of those things will make him a target.”
What we find makes us question those unknowable monsters at the heart of Western mythology, and ask if they are in fact monsters at all.
Headley doesn’t pull any punches; Dana is just as dangerous as the original Grendel’s mother. But we are invited into her head. We follow her home. And what we find there makes us question those unknowable monsters at the heart of Western mythology, and ask if they are in fact monsters at all.
Similarly, Miller’s Circe grapples with the inherent dichotomy at the heart of a character in the Odyssey, and plays both with her source text’s misogyny and with the patriarchal oppression that runs through ancient Greek literature and into modern scholarship. Circe investigates our understanding of myth, turning the callous academic acceptance of misogyny into a god’s quietly horrible speech: Nymphs always run, the messenger god Hermes tells Circe, but “they are terrible at getting away.” When Circe herself comes to grips with her own powers, it is discomforting and victorious at once: “It was not a word I knew. It was not a word anyone knew, then…Witch.”
Circe is at once powerful and cowed, set up as a sorceress and nearly immediately defeated by Odysseus. Miller asks how this is possible, and to do so, she unravels Circe’s long biography, stretching far before and after her encounter with Odysseus and situating Odysseus, for once, as an event in Circe’s life, rather than the opposite. Circe avoids anachronism; women’s power and men’s fear of that power twine hand in hand through the text. There is no man who is truly unthreatening, and even Circe’s son brings her pain and exhaustion. But Miller uses the initial image of a powerful woman defeated — an image that recurs again and again through Greek mythology — to show the ways women can succeed.
Barker’s The Silence of the Girls embarks in the opposite direction, with the triumph and pomp of the Iliad peeled back to show the abuse and women’s slave labor behind it. Pain in the Iliad is a desperate but heroic act, the many deaths of the poem building up into a kind of complicated glory. In The Silence of the Girls, though, all the implied rapes that the Iliad and its many translations and adaptations gloss over are plainly, horrifically present: neither overblown nor loaded with pathos, just inescapable. With deliberately plain language, Barker strips away the bold, Homeric prose of her original: “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles,” Briseis says. “How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’”
The Silence of the Girls is an act of witnessing, of deliberately reclaiming a story that has been swept aside. In doing so, it plays with the very idea of story — after all, not much happens to Briseis; the plot belongs to Achilles, and other characters like Odysseus and Patroclus have much more agency than Barker’s protagonist. In the very last lines of the novel, Briseis declares, “I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story — and failed. Now, my own story can begin.” It is almost a rebuke against centuries of scholarship that ignored Briseis’ role in the Iliad. Fine, here’s her point of view, The Silence of the Girls says, but you don’t get to see her ending: That, unlike so much else of her life and personhood, belongs to her.
One reviewer praised The Silence of the Girls as a “Greek myth for the #MeToo era,” but it can be dangerous to view an adaptation as an improved version, handily up to date with 21st century–approved identity politics. Our view of politics and power has shifted so radically that it can be nearly impossible to rework an ancient story with contemporary tools. Every adaptation is troubling, either for our modern understanding or for the original text. Part of reading an adaptation is the satisfaction and joy of expansion in a beloved world or favorite story; part of it is the taste of loss.
Sometimes, having to deal with the huge weight of literary and cultural history means that writers can only deal with one or the other, the text or the history. The Mere Wife’s version of Beowulf, the poem’s eponymous hero, is a good example of a contemporary reading that illuminates our present but doesn’t quite do justice to its source material. We mistrust heroes now; we especially mistrust male political heroes and the narratives they stand for. Headley told the Sydney Morning Herald, “We have these political hero narratives going through our whole system and in my opinion they’re fascist narratives. The way that Trump got elected was by saying, ‘I’m a hero.’” Fittingly, The Mere Wife’s Beowulf, Ben Woolf, is a retired Marine and new cop, a perfect masculine threat.
Beowulf as a macho Trump lookalike seeking power is comprehensible to us in 2018, but that’s not what the source material gives us. In the original text, Beowulf operated on more complicated and tragic grounds. When Beowulf fights Grendel, they tumble arm in arm until it becomes impossible to tell where monster ends and hero begins. This dual existence of light and dark in Beowulf’s character plays through to his ending, where he dies a pagan, never knowing the God around whom the internal universe of the poem operates. Beowulf is spiritually condemned, heroic because he is doomed. Headley’s version of him loses that complexity and strange, unholy drive. Although Ben Woolf shows us something about a particular kind of male political hero from the last century, it’s hard not to read this as a loss from the original text — more of a rewrite than an update.
It can be dangerous to view an adaptation as an improved version, handily up to date with 21st century–approved identity politics.
Another complicated twist of thread sees writers bringing queer characters into the often heterosexual worlds of their original texts, or making something explicit out of the flashes of queerness that shimmer beneath the surface of ancient texts. Queer adaptations can do real work in rejecting centuries of scholarship that have tried to repress or resolve implicitly queer content into stolid heterosexuality, but they require care. Queerness in 2018 is not the same as queerness in the 8th century BCE, or in the 10th century BCE, or even in 1918. Queerness and gender are shaped by the culture we live in; though queer people have always existed, the way they have understood or expressed themselves — not to mention the way they fit (or didn’t) in larger society — has been constantly in flux. Introducing queer content into adaptations is therefore complicated territory; a writer has to think through both the way queer characters change the story and are themselves changed by its context.
The danger is when queer characters are seen as an easy way to modernize a story, as though the simple addition of a gay man can fix all the troubling implications of gender and power in an early text. The Mere Wife, for example, introduces two boys who fall in love and then, almost immediately, are murdered — a tired trope when it comes to queer storylines and not a particularly inspired addition to the original Beowulf plot.
Queer adaptations are smarter and richer when they build organically on the elements already present in a classic text. Following this idea, Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles (2011), is a joyful rebuke to every academic who has argued for a brotherly reading of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad; it imagines their bond as a romance, written with tender, explicit warmth.
The Silence of the Girls, on the other hand, offers a comparatively timid reading despite being published years later. Barker’s novel steps around the relationship between the two heroes, not quite queer or straight, with Briseis eventually concluding that what they had “went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love. I didn’t understand it…but I recognized its power.” Effectively, Barker is trying to allow for a multiplicity of theories and let readers interpret the relationship as they like, but in doing so she brushes aside the more radical and defiant potential of queer love. It’s a potent reminder that the best queer readings very often come from a full-throated embrace of queerness itself. They play with anachronism, modern understandings, and the original text to give us something new that will cast a shadow back on its original.
In The Monsters and the Critics, J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us that even when it was first written by its anonymous poet, Beowulf was already an old story. “If the funeral of Beowulf,” Tolkien wrote, “moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is to us as a memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo.”
An echo of an echo: That is where adaptations reach. What we snatch can only be shadows of an original story already nearly incomprehensible to us.
Everything has changed since Odysseus first found his way home, since Beowulf’s funeral came drifting over the hills. Adaptations wrestle with that everything, as best they can. There is no way that adaptations can cleave diligently to the truth of their original — and does literature ever really have one truth, anyway? — because the original story is inextricable from the centuries we’ve spent investigating it. The stories we’ve canonized as classics are lit by a hundred different spotlights made up of conversation and cultural meaning and academia and love. Right now, when we need to look at the way our history and culture has led us to this crisis point, the spotlights uncover ugliness as frequently as they do beauty.
The best adaptations don’t necessarily try to make a text better. Even losing something can be interesting: There is not much of Wealhþeow in her successor Willa, but we can still catch, in Willa’s cold light, the shadow of Wealhþeow’s tragedy and triumph. The quiet romance of The Song of Achilles and the cold reality of The Silence of the Girls offer their own attempts at reading between the lines of the Iliad’s marching beat. Circe blends multiple myths with classroom conversations from thousands of years later to present a new kind of ancient witch. Adaptations cannot help but fail at times, in translating their original work and in navigating the wide gulf between the stories themselves and the ways we understand those stories today. But in the best cases, it is beautiful to even watch them try. We want to hear a story: We want to hear our favorite story. Tell it again. ●
Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer currently based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on her first novel, a literary rom-com cowritten with her wife.