Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Legends Reimagined

I recently finished Black Ships by Jo Graham, a novel that reimagnes The Aeneid in a more historically accurate way. I enjoyed Black Ships, and it reminded me how much I love novels that reimagine familiar legends.

 My all time favorite reimagining of a famous legend is Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, which retells the legend of King Arthur from a historical perspective. Cornwell’s story, which consists of three novels, The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur, reimagines Arthur as a warlord, instead of a king, and is told through the viewpoint of Derfel Carden, a Saxon who is raised by Merlin and becomes one of Arthur’s most loyal warriors. What’s so enjoyable about the trilogy is that everything you’d expect from Arthurian legend has been turned on its head: Arthur now serves Uther’s son, a young King Mordred. Nimue, a druid priestess and Merlin’s lover, is the main female character, while Morgan plays only a bit role as a druidess turned Christian. Lancelot is a major villain and Guinevere is, well, complicated (let’s just say she fancies the cult of a certain Egyptian goddess whose religious rites play a major role in the second novel). Other than Arthur, who is a warrior without equal, the only other character that fully resembles his legendary personage is Merlin, who becomes one of most memorable characters of any telling of the Arthurian myth I’ve ever read. Familiar story lines such as the round table, the quest for the holy grail, and the death of Arthur are all present in some form or another, although not always as you might expect. The retelling is both fresh and facilitating, and I highly recommend these novels to every fan of Arthurian fiction.

Who says Arthur was a king?

In the past year I’ve also read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood, which reimagines the legend of Robin Hood as an Eleventh Century Welsh freedom fighter. Robin is now Bran ap Brychan, heir to the throne of Elfael, and William the Conqueror plays the role of King John. Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are still present, albeit not in a way you might recognize them from the legend’s various film adaptations.

Lawhead's Robin Hood is not like any you'd remember!

Black Ships is told from the viewpoint of Gull, a Trojan girl enslaved by the Greeks who becomes Sibyl, a priestess of the Goddess of Death. Because the novel retells The Aeneid, Aeneas plays a major role, but like Cornwell, Graham tells the story a from a historical perspective. Dido has been replaced by an Egyptian princess since Carthage didn’t exist back then, but Egypt under Ramses III was a major power. In fact, the scenes in Egyptian Memphis are among the best in the novel. Encounters with mythical creatures such as Charybdis and the Cyclops are gone, but the gods – with some truly creative theories as to their origins – are still present, as is Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld. I purchased Black Ships on a whim while visiting my local Borders before its demise. But I’m glad I did since it was an opportunity to experience yet another great legend reimagined. 

You'll like these Trojans!

For those who enjoy this type of fiction, I’d love to know if you have other great examples of famous legends reimagined.

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