Old Stories, New Perspectives: Using Ancient Myth in Contemporary Works
By Jay Paine
“The story goes I drowned,” reads a line from Kazim Ali’s poem “Confession,” which serves as a retelling for the fall of Icarus from Greek mythology, and Ali is quite correct: Icarus does indeed drown. That is how the story goes, and yet Ali retells the story anyway. Why? At a glance, it may seem superfluous to rewrite a story that’s already been told and told for millennia at that. However, rewriting an old story can actually be one of the best places to begin when you want to write something new.
I’m sure you might be a little skeptical, and I don’t blame you, but starting with an ancient myth can provide you with a kickstart for exploring all kinds of ideas. Because the narrative points are already laid out for you, you get to skip the painstaking task of concocting a narrative from scratch and immediately begin considering some other important aspects of crafting a creative piece. You get to start thinking about what characters you want to focus on, what themes you want your piece to embody, why the myth is important to you, etc. Basically, you get to skip or partially skip a step in the writing process. Also, many of us face or have faced writer’s block. It’s so hard to yank a story out of thin air, but ancient myths can serve as writing prompts to help you start writing. Myths give you a story, and that means you’ve got something to work with.
Another great thing about retelling myths is that you can retell any myth in any way that you see fit. However, it is crucial not to merely summarize the story. Simply retelling the same, basic story may come across as redundant and unnuanced—none of us want to write or read that. The trick is to provide a fresh take on the myth, and there are a variety of ways to do this. First, you could change simple aspects like the setting. Maybe you want to retell a myth in a contemporary setting like New York City. Maybe you see that as an avenue for a fresh and exciting story. Second, you could focus on a character who doesn’t receive much attention in earlier versions. This is a good way to offer a fresh perspective on a story because you’re literally accessing it from another character’s perspective. Madeline Miller’s novel Circe is a good example of this: it recounts the events of Homer’s Odyssey while focusing on the perspective of a character who initially received very little attention. Third, you could retell a myth to emphasize a theme that is not emphasized in the ancient versions. (Remember, the ancients were also in the business of retelling their beloved mythological tales in new and exciting ways, so there is no true ‘original’ version.) Ali is a master of the latter.
Ali’s poem concludes with “I abandoned wings and sun / For the blue direction / And by the flowers in my mouth / I swear I’ll find some place on this earth that knows me.” No version from ancient Greek mythology gives you that spin on the ending. These final lines offer Ali’s unique perspective on Icarus’ fall. For Ali, Icarus’ fall is less about Icarus’ failure to obey instructions or achieve moderation. It also isn’t about Daedalus mourning the death of his son. Ali’s retelling is more about finding a place where you will be known and understood, even if finding that place entails taking a painful fall. Still, at bottom, the story is the same: Icarus drowns. However, Ali crafts something entirely new when he rewrites the story to embody the theme that sometimes you fall hard before you find a place that truly accepts you. It’s the same story made fresh and exciting with a new perspective.