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Why do we love retellings of old stories?

Why do we love retellings of old stories?

From The Song of Achilles to Wide Sargasso Sea, we can't seem to get enough of retellings! What is the appeal of revisiting old stories from new perspectives?

One of the reasons I love to read is because I’ve always been keenly aware of the power of stories. A compellingly told tale can turn a victim into a hero; a hero into a villain. A clever narrative can subtly change your mind about all kinds of accepted truths.

Perhaps most importantly right now, as we face economic and environmental challenges in a world many of us find rather frightening, a good story can help you to reframe your own pain or loneliness into something brave and meaningful. Maybe that’s why I find retellings of stories we all know so well particularly thrilling—and why I've found them a particular comfort over the past few years.

"A compellingly told tale can turn a victim into a hero; a hero into a villain"

There’s a kind of magic in the reality altering power of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, for instance—a novel that takes the silent, monstrous Mrs Rochester of Jane Eyre and gives her agency, gives her a voice, repositioning our sympathies in the process. Once you’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea, I guarantee you’ll never read Jane Eyre in quite the same way again. 

The rise of retellings

More recently we’ve seen alternative takes on the events of the Trojan War and classical mythology. In The Iliad and The Odyssey men take centre stage and women are mostly silent, collateral damage—props to men’s violence and ambition as well as the plot. 

Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Natalie Haynes' various works both address this gap in the original stories and give the women, whose names at least are familiar to us, motives and feelings and flaws of their own as well.

Medusa © Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Medusa © Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stone Blind is Natalie Hayne’s most recent offering. It focuses on Medusa, a woman who deserves a sympathetic retelling if anyone does. The most widely known cultural offerings focus on the snake hair and the lethal gaze, but in Hayne’s version we are reminded that Medusa was mortal once—and that she is raped by Poseiden and then punished for this ordeal by the other gods. Apparently, victim blaming is no new phenomenon. 

Retellings are, of course, often focused on marginalised voices like Medusa’s. Taking inspiration from the same mythic setting, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles puts Patroclus centre stage, despite its title, exploring a love story between Achilles and Patroclus.

"This upending of our ideas of monsters and heroes is a common theme in retellings"

Then there’s The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, a modern take on Beowulf, which positions Grendel’s mother as its true heroine while the complacent privilege of suburbia is the true monster.

This upending of our ideas of monsters and heroes is a common theme in retellings. It feels a pertinent perspective on modern events too, as “strong men” across the world show how damaging these traditional “heroic” ideals can be in practice. Increasingly, we are starting to consider different ideas of what it means to be “heroic”.

Filling in the gaps

But it’s not only perspective shifts on well-known events that can motivate retellings. Sometimes, a retelling instead fills in the gaps in a story or widens our frame of reference. This is certainly the case with Learwife by J R Thorp, which, as its title suggests, gives us the backstory of the absent wife and mother in King Lear. It forces us to ask questions about the gaps in the play itself and reminds us to look beneath the surface of the stories we’re told.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm © William Dyce, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm © William Dyce, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s an argument that says the best stories, the ones that take root in our imaginations, lend themselves to retellings as we turn them over in our minds, digging deeper and deeper in order to reach the underlying “truth” of a tale. Perhaps this is why fairytales have long been a genre particularly ripe for retellings.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is the classic example of this, looking at some of these well known tales through a feminist lens, in order to reach, as the author says, their “latent truth.” Often, this “truth” isn’t particularly pretty—far from delightful, whimsical stories for children, many fairytales are dark and violent and full of warning. How much more fascinating and relevant they become when we face these messages directly.

"The best stories lend themselves to retellings as we turn them over in our minds, digging deeper"

Whether or not you buy into theories that say there are a set number of narrative plots in the world that are recycled again and again across different cultures and contexts and characters, what seems certain is that there are many more ways to find meaning in a text. And for me at least, finding meaning that resonates and transforms in many well known stories is a powerful metaphor for making—and transforming—meaning in my everyday life too.

So if you love a novel or a play or a short story, don’t be afraid to look for other works of art it has inspired. Retellings are a form of magic—and frankly the world could do with a little more magic.

Cover image: Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus © Gavin Hamilton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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