When I was asked to share my favorite novels in the era of historical fiction I write in, I was a bit flummoxed. My first novel was set in medieval France, and I am still writing in that time and place, but I also have interests in Renaissance Europe, the ancient worlds, and yes, WWII. Which makes this request complicated.
I decided to go back to the reason I write at all, and that is because of the myths, legends, and folklore I have collected over the years. Besides often being oral history and hallmarks of societal progress, these stories were imbued with the magic of what was not yet known. That friction between what we know and what we don’t is ripe fodder for writers and has sustained me through a lifetime. It’s history of a different kind, one that explores the way ancient peoples interacted with a world they were so new at exploring.
So, let’s look at those ancient tales reimagined in new ways!
My love affair with folklore and legend began with Greek and Roman mythology. Part of the fascination, I think, was the notion of gods and goddesses who had power and beauty and strength, but who still struggled all too often with their own flaws. It reminded me a lot of the Hindu stories I grew up with, of a time when divine beings incarnated into mortal avatars on Earth to carry out interventions often caused by their own propensity to dole and boons and favors without enough discrimination.
In both The Song of Achilles and Circe, Madeline Miller brings back to life those myths I read so many years ago but in a contemporary style that feels fresh and updated. It can be really difficult to write about epic characters who undergo not just one main transformation but who are faced with everchanging obstacles, but Miller delivers tightly paced novels with oodles of character growth and definite authorial viewpoints. I’m glad to see the popularity of these stories only grow.
Speaking of love affairs, my other great mythologic interest took me into the world of King Arthur. My entry into the complex world of Uther Pendragon, Merlin, Mordred, Morgan le Fay, and of course the beautiful Guinevere started with T.H. White and the other classics, took me through the gorgeous imagination of Marion Zimmer Bradley, and landed me, surprisingly, to The Road to Avalon, a small book exploring Arthur’s true love—not Guinevere, but a woman he fell for far before he knew what the word ‘love’ meant. I’m surprised to admit that my quest to find the latest and greatest Arthurian fiction ended with this story. It is the perfect imagination of a historical tale that has inspired so many.
In addition to being a connoisseur of mythology and folklore, I have a soft spot for comic books and graphic novels, possibly prompted by the rich comic book tellings of Indian history and culture that permeated my youth (maybe more on that another time!). I was introduced to Neil Gaiman through the Sandman comics but was truly mesmerized by his use of different world mythologies in both American Gods and The Anansi Boys. If we accept that folklore, myth, and even religion are mortal attempts at understanding the unknowns of the world around us, then how can we not be curious about how those once-beloved beliefs would fare today? In American Gods, Gaiman gives us a look at how the Old Gods from ancient times and the New Gods of today might fare in today’s America.
Anansi Boys is not a strict sequel but derives from the same world and is perhaps a stronger telling of how brothers born of the mortal incarnation of the West African god Anansi were split apart and find each other again. It’s a poignant tale that shows how old beliefs can still be relevant today.
If Neil Gaiman introduced me to the ways mythology could be used to tell complex novels, well, Anthony Doerr gave me a masterclass in the power of myth across three different timelines in his latest book, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Written as a “love letter” to the power of the story, this book toyed with timelines and this reader’s emotions by using the trope of a newly discovered manuscript to examine how we connect as a people to the allure of storytelling.
That brings me to recent works by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, both of which are very relevant to the works I am writing now. The first, Mexican Gothic, reimagines the Victorian genre as an entry point into exploring both Mexican cultural mores and the harm caused by colonization of the land and people. Like many novels based on mythology, this book relies on a liberal streak of superstition and magic, imbued into the text in the form of the evil eye, the ouroboros, and even Tarot. Gods of Jade and Shadow offers a more straightforward treatment of Mexican folklore, with the gods of death wreaking havoc over mortals during the Jazz Age.
These last two books, in particular, have captivated me because they offer different ways of telling stories, using beliefs of the past not just as plot points but as a way to reimagine the recent past. It’s something I am trying to do in my own work, both with an Indian Gothic I am revising now and with a fabulist historical based on Hindu rituals that I am brainstorming.
What mythology-inspired books have caught your eye? Let me know, because, lol, my TBR is not overwhelming enough!
Vanitha Sankaran writes historical fiction as well as young adult fantasy. Her award-winning debut historical novel WATERMARK explores the world of papermaking in the Middle Ages. She is serving her fifth term on the Board of the Historical Novel Society of North America and serves as a DEI coordinator for her local chapter of the SCBWI. Find out more at www.vanithasankaran.com.