Do I choose the stories I retell, or do they choose me?
I frequently see lists of favorite books online, or of formatively important books, or of great classic books you ought to have read, so bold the ones you did read and feel ashamed for all the ones you didn’t. (Usually when that list goes around, the only classic I’ve read is The Lord of the Rings.)
I’ve listed and written about some of those favorite or formative books–In This House of Brede, The Spiral Dance–and could easily name others–LOTR, the Chronicles of Narnia, Original Blessing–but instead, I’d like to talk about stories. Irrespective of authorship, certain stories have obsessed me and nourished me over the years, and I’ve repeatedly come back to their original texts and to writers’ variations on them.
The first story I have to name is The Star Trek Story. A story I watched came before any story I heard or any story I read. To some people, Star Trek is the story of a future that will never come true, of an onward march of progress that is unrealistic and unsustainable, and of a certain kind of U.S. liberal politics writ large upon the cosmos. To me, Star Trek is the story of people who went out with seeking eyes and open hands to meet new people and new kinds of people and to bring home new knowledge about the universe. It is the story of people who are different, sometimes vastly different, learning to live together as neighbors and even as friends. If you think that Kirk breaking the speed of light and the Prime Directive equally often is all that Trek is about, I urge you to read Kendra James’ tribute to Deep Space Nine’s Captain Ben Sisko on Racialicious.
Next after The Star Trek Story comes the Mabinogion. I think that Lloyd Alexander’s five-part series of the Chronicles of Prydain was really my first exposure to the world of the Mabinogion. The Chronicles of Prydain are original fiction for children, not a retelling of any specific story, but the names, characters, themes, and atmosphere are drawn from the Four Branches, the Romances, and the “Hanes Taliesin”. There is Taran, the protagonist, an orphan boy-of-all-work and Assistant Pig Keeper of Hen Wen, the oracular white pig; great names like Gwydion, Math, Arawn, and Achren figure in his adventures. And there is Flewddur Flam, the king who would be bard, and his somewhat unreliable harp, which tends to snap a string if he embellishes a tale too much; Gurgi, a mysterious shaggy person who seems to be neither man nor beast; and the talkative princess Eilonwy, who is not as scatter-brained as she seems.
Later, I encountered Evangeline Walton’s retellings of the Four Branches: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. These were fantasy works for adults, occasionally slightly racy for a ten-year-old, and deeply influenced by nineteenth-century anthropology and esotericism. Walton pitted the New Tribes, patriarchal warriors epitomised by the clueless Pwyll, against the Old Tribes, matriarchal magicians who recognized the Mother as the source of all life, epitomised by the shrewd and reserved Manawyddan. Both Pwyll and Manawyddan marry the unforgettable Rhiannon, the beautiful sharp-tongued faery woman who may actually be the goddess herself.
Closely related to the Mabinogion, of course, is the Matter of Britain, the great Arthurian corpus. I’m sure I read Sidney Lanier’s adaptation, and some of Pyle’s, along with his Robin Hood (which I liked better than his Arthurian books); Rosemary Sutcliffe’s trilogy on the legends, The Sword and the Circle, The Light beyond the Forest, and The Road to Camlann, plus Song for a Dark Queen, her take on Boudicca; and then, of course, The Mists of Avalon and all of its sequels, and most recently the excellent series by Gerald Morris, The Squire’s Tales. I even devoured Meg Cabot’s Avalon High when I discovered it in Kindle format.
The D’Aulaires’ beautiful volume was my introduction to Norse mythology, closely followed by Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin with its marvelous Art Nouveau line drawings by Willi Pogany. No one who has seen it could forget Pogany’s image of Loki, his long hair swirling out about his bitter, pointed face, eating the burnt heart of Gullveig the witch. I was about equally in love with Greek mythology, yet there is no one book that stands out in my memory; I know I read a good deal of Bulfinch as well as quite a few children’s retellings.
Unpagan as it may seem, the stories of the Bible are always going to be part of my personal canon and a source of meaning for me. The great advantage that the canonical Gospels have over all the noncanonical materials, fascinating though the latter may be, is that they are stories, stories of an interesting person who has interesting things to say. The Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham are to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles what The Mists of Avalon is to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur: A retelling from the point of view of a female character that stands the whole story on its head (and shakes out its pockets and forces it to make some sense). They are also both comedic and comic, unlike the Avalon books: Hilariously funny and hell-bent on a happy ending.
The stories of the Old Testament, of the Torah and historical writings, also continue to interest me. I actually wrote a short fanfic based on Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor, “Hearing Voices”, for an online festival of transformative works based on the Hebrew Scriptures. A few years ago The Red Tent, a novel about Jacob and the women in his life, became a best-seller. Madeleine L’Engle wrote a trilogy of books reflecting on the patriarchs of the book of Genesis, and I hear there was a miniseries based on the narratives of Saul and David, which is something I’ve always wanted to see. How a story as full of sex, violence, politics, intrigue, sex, adventure, homoerotic subtext, and did I mention SEX? as the books of Samuel and Kings could become a miniseries and get cancelled is beyond my understanding. Alas.
Finally, I must mention a series of books that debuted when I was a teenager and have remained important to me, though I have grown far older than the characters: The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. Long before anyone had heard of that English boy whose mean relatives made him live in a cupboard under the stairs, Nita Callahan and her partner Kit Rodriguez were fighting the heat-death of the universe with heroism, courage, poetic words, and an array of unlikely-looking allies. This review will give you a good idea of the series, though it’s focused on the first book.