The co-op bookstore for avid readers

Myths Reimagined

The 11 best books that retell age-old legends, myths, and folk tales.
Samuel Haecker •
Jun 16th, 2023

Once you’ve finished your Irish pub pilgrimage on Bloomsday, it’s time to sit back and dip into James Joyce’s reimagined Odyssey once again. If you’ve already tackled it—or were never planning to (no judgment here!)—we’ve compiled an epic reading list of great books that breathe new life into age-old legends, myths, and folk tales.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Verse and novel thrum in tandem in Anne Carson’s classic coming-of-age epic that casts Geryon, one of Heracles’ many (lesser known) foes, as the hero’s tragic lover.

"It’s a moving love story! It’s a meditation on monstrosity! It’s sexy! It’s Poetry! And yes, of course it is. It is all of those things. But be honest: it’s also a teen romantic comedy… It is a rom-com, but it is not boring, or paint-by-numbers. Carson is a surprising writer—in her larger conceptual movements but even more strikingly on the line level—and surprise is key to not only to literary transcendence but also to humor."

— Emily Temple via LitHub

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

In a contemporary twist on The Odyssey, Margaret Atwood passes the mic to Odysseus’ wife Penelope and her maids. The story elicits sharp commentary on the double standards and pressures faced by women in the often-idealized Ancient Greece.

British classicist Emily Wilson called it one of her favorite books, saying “the theme of women’s collusion with the abuse of women is an important theme, essential in our age of intersectional feminism and #MeToo.”

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

This Snow White adaptation by the British writer Helen Oyeyemi, known for her reworked fairy tales, infuses the household Grimm tale with grim episodes of racial injustice, rape, family secrets, and estrangement.

In Slate, Miriam Krule called the book a “stunning and enchanting fairy tale” that “defies classification, seeming to dip its toes in one genre, say magical realism, hop out, and settle into historical fiction or fractured fairy tale.”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard are among some of the beautifully and gruesomely subverted tales in this landmark collection by the influential British writer Angela Carter, who taps into the adult themes that imbued the original folklore before they were gutted by Disney.

“Open The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and you know right away you’re reading a masterpiece — not something one expects with a modern collection of retold fairy tales. Electric, hypnotic, dizzying, occasionally hallucinatory — paragraph by paragraph, you are in the presence of an author in total control of her prose.”

— Christian Lorentzen via Vulture

Grendel by John Gardner

No one ever asks the antagonist how they’re doing. Beowulf’s nemesis and ultimate victim becomes a poignant figure of existentialism and loneliness in this 1971 novel by John Gardner.

In the New York Times, Gregory Cowles said, “as villain origin stories go, it beats 'Joker' by a mile.”

Ragnarok: The End of Gods by A. S. Byatt

The publisher Canongate published an entire series of reworked myths, and this one by Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt is one of the stand-outs. It’s a bleak retelling of the Norse apocalypse, filtered through a Second World War lens.

"Ragnarok is a clever, lucid, lovely book... But it isn't a novel, or even a story in the usual sense. It's a discourse on myth, woven in and around a polemic about pollution and loss of species diversity…”

– M John Harrison, via The Guardian

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia, Aeneas’ mute betrothed from Virgil’s Aeneid, goes from minor character to major voice in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Locus Award-winning novel. 

"Le Guin is famous for creating alternative worlds (as in Left Hand of Darkness ), and she approaches Lavinia’s world, from which Western civilization took its course, as unique and strange as any fantasy. It’s a novel that deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves’s I, Claudius."

— via Publishers Weekly

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

The debut from Jennifer Saint weaves a fascinating story of betrayal and liberation through the eyes of the Princess of Crete, who gave it all up for Theseus, only to be abandoned by him on an island while she slept.

"In a world ruled by temperamental, petulant gods, Ariadne and Phaedra are shining beacons of female strength and courage – making this a story that’s impossible to forget."

– via CultureFly

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Set in American suburbia, this novel reimagines the Beowulf legend as a town war between two vastly different women.

"Her prose is an exhilarating mixture of darkness and fire, striking the perfect balance between sparse and startlingly vivid...its roots are coiled deep in the old earth and the dark water, the place that nightmares come from, and dreams too.”

– Anna Carey, via The Irish Times

Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller’s wildly popular reinvention of the witch Circe is a storytelling triumph. From Odysseus's arrival to the birth of the Minotaur, the myths retold here have an exhilarating feminist energy to them.

"We know how everything here turns out — we’ve known it for thousands of years — and yet in Miller’s lush reimagining, the story feels harrowing and unexpected. The feminist light she shines on these events never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before."

– Ron Charles, via The Washington Post

Ulysses by James Joyce

The classic reimagining of a Greek epic rolling through the streets of Dublin, Joyce’s magnum opus always has more stories to tell.

What to read next:
What to read next: