There always seems to be some sort of mysticism surrounding the notion of “myths”. Often, they can seem inaccessible. They’re something of the past, locked away in a box only Classics majors have the keys to, and not really something you think about on a day-to-day basis.
But that’s wrong, because myths are hauntingly transcendent and say a giant “fuck you” to time, place, and language. Don’t be disillusioned—myths are as contemporary as “Harry Potter”, and just as relevant.
We live in a world so saturated with myths, both new and old, that we often don’t recognize mythology for what it is: a primordial truth about humanity. However, that definition sounds awfully lofty and pompous, so it is super cool for twenty-first century authors to incorporate myths into fiction.
Averno by Louise Glück is a poetry collection that uses the myth of Persephone and Hades as a point of reference to explore larger-than-life topics like death, the soul, and the breakdown of a relationship. It offers unconventional takes on the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, telling the story both from the kidnapper’s perspective and, refreshingly, from Persephone’s.
Glück’s poetry feels personal and domestic, concentrating on scenes of nature, which adds to the borderless aspect of her writing. She switches between the first and second person with ease, inviting you into her narrative that seems to draw on her own life and experiences. She makes myths feel intimate, by grounding her collection in a central household myth that is able to translate perfectly from an ancient Greek context into a very tangible contemporary one.
When you first read Anne Carson’s Antigonick, it seems a little strange to see seemingly unrelated pen and watercolour drawings printed on vellum in the middle of a modern translation of Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone”. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense in an abstract, magical-realism sort of way. When Haimon and Kreon are arguing, we see birds exploding out of a chimney, signifying conflict within the household. Some drawings are more abstract than others, composed of watercolour lines and blurs that remind me of Chinese ink paintings, while others are simply absurd (a horse knocking over a dining table), yet all of them connect to the tragedy in some inexplicable way.
Another point of note in Antigonick is the lack of punctuation. Carson’s prose seems poetic in form, using the spacing and positioning of words on the page to signify starts and stops. The main themes and conflicts of the play are clearly presented in a poetic form, and although there is a distinct archaic taste to the text (“thou, thee”), there is also displacement through the insertion of modern concepts and turns of phrases.
As someone who has studied the Fagles translation of the play last year, I thoroughly enjoyed Carson’s take, which presents the text graphically and bluntly. You are no longer required to parse through the text to get to the themes, and in a sense this work is an English lecture in and of itself.
If you are a first time reader of Sophocles, however, I would recommend a more literal translation of the play, as Antigonick is a piece of art that requires foreknowledge of the source material.
Mythology is awesome, which is great because it’s everywhere. Really, read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me. But mythology is also varied, and is definitely not limited to the Greek canon. So after you check out these two beautiful works of fiction, be sure to branch out. Maybe you’ll have an epiphany somewhere along the way.
-Contributed by Stephanie Gao