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Four Takes: Mount Olympus revisited in four contemporary titles, The Boston Globe

January 26, 2020

In classical mythology, the gods cannot get enough of defying higher-ups. The latest to cross this tripwire are Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who recently announced they’ve had enough of royal life, and wish to be mere mortals instead. On Olympus the gods frowned. The rest of us, meanwhile, hang on what happens next.

Long after one god (or none) replaced the many, we still respond to tales of uncommon beings tested by uncommon circumstances. Scouring creation for something to write about, authors in particular cannot resist the ancient myths. Classical mythology infuses today’s fantasy literature, and our preoccupation with superheroes. Devotees would argue it is foundational: No “Hunger Games” without the Minotaur.

Stephen Fry is among many writers who are happy to acknowledge the debt. For readers who have not dusted off their Edith Hamilton in some time, his “Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold” supplies a wonderful reintroduction to some of the more popular stories. The British actor may seem an odd choice for the job. Yet he has written several popular books and, as he notes in the introduction, has been fascinated by the Greek myths since boyhood. Who better to provide an entertaining recap?

Fry wears his learning lightly, delivering a series of witty vignettes and stopping along the way to note the Greek origins of familiar words. (“Giant” derives from Gigantes, a group of primal deities known for their strength – though, interestingly, not their size.) Never again will you confuse Fates with Furies, or wonder why we have cornucopias.

Fry ends approximately where the novelist Pat Barker begins, with the Trojan War. In “The Silence of the Girls,” she takes on “The Iliad,” recasting Homer’s hyper-masculine epic from the viewpoint of its women. Most of the story is narrated by Briseis, a Trojan queen captured during the fighting, and given to the Greek warrior Achilles as a prize.

Briseis is a proud heroine, observant, stoical and enraged. Through her, Barker brings the bleak conditions of the enemy camp to life, as well as the captive women’s mistreatment. A pecking order dictated by social status, age and attractiveness could make one grim female existence better than another, but only marginally.

Even as the war winds down, Briseis realizes that she will never be able to escape Achilles’ story for her own. Paradoxically, Barker has given her one, but it points to unfinished business.

Odysseus, the mortal hero of Homer’s other great epic, has a bit part in Baker’s novel. Madeline Miller gives him more lines but holds him to a supporting role. In “Circe” she has moved one of the saga’s minor characters to center stage. Readers of “The Odyssey” will recall Circe as the fearsome goddess who turns men into pigs. She also falls for Odysseus not long after he leaves Troy and seeks respite on her island.

Mocked by her siblings and even her mother for her plainness and screechy voice, Circe had been banished for practicing witchcraft. Miller transforms her into a sympathetic figure who steadily gains moral stature as the novel unfolds.

Finding a workable voice for godly doings can be tricky. A spiritual forebear of Monty Python, Fry comes well armed with irony, softening his characters’ sometimes stiff locutions with droll asides. Miller’s dialogue strays more often into Cecil B. Demille territory. (“Why did no one tell me? … There is no mortal in me, I am Titan only.”) Occasionally, the lure of antique expression lands her on the rocks: “He carried his wounds openly in his hands,” she writes at one head-scratching point.

In “Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung,” Globe books columnist Nina MacLaughlin tackles the problem by transporting her characters to the present. Smitten by the Roman poet’s “Metamorphoses,” she has re-imagined some of its more memorable characters, channeling their uninhibited voices through a millennial patois. These are gods who text each other and buy snacks at the 7-Eleven.

Like Barker and Miller, MacLaughlin has foregrounded women’s voices, but hers are wise-cracking and profanity-laced, by turns self-doubting and assertive. “Wake Siren” is a treasury of bedtime tales to savor – perhaps especially by women who have just been through a long day of mansplaining.

Not surprisingly, these writers occasionally cross each other’s paths. MacLaughlin’s Scylla is both classic BFF and the blameless victim of Circe’s jealousy. But in Miller’s ingenious reworking of the tale, the flirtatious nymph steals Glaucus, the first of Circe’s mortal lovers, just because she can. Seeking vengeance, Circe discovers she does not know her own strength and turns Scylla into a six-headed monster. Her free use of pharmaceuticals is punished, by Zeus, as defiance. Exile follows for Circe, but so, eventually, does motherhood. The good news for Meghan Markle: She makes the most of it.

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