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Sing to me muse of nostalgia: Coming home to what hurts

A look at Gen Z’s decade-long fascination with Greek mythology-inspired literature

<p>Miller’s iconic books “Circe,” published in 2018, and “The Song of Achilles,” published in 2011, both focus on the ruthless nature of Greek mythology, the horror of eternity and the ever-encroaching fear of death.</p>

Miller’s iconic books “Circe,” published in 2018, and “The Song of Achilles,” published in 2011, both focus on the ruthless nature of Greek mythology, the horror of eternity and the ever-encroaching fear of death.

I. Nostalgia has more than one meaning, but the most typical interpretation is that of sentimental reflection, rosy retrospection and longing for happier days gone by. 

The year is 2005, and Rick Riordan has just changed the face of young adult fantasy by putting out the first installment of what will soon be a hit series — “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” Riordan’s reinterpretations of Greek mythology quickly takes root in the hearts of young Gen Z readers and have continued to do so ever since. 

Now let’s be fair, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is nothing new. Riordan’s candy-coated myths, while palatable to the elementary and middle school audiences they reach, are the same stories we have heard for thousands of years. They have been handed off from poets to playwrights to painters and now to YA fiction authors. They are the same stories, but there are still many differences from the original myths we might read from Ovid, Hesiod or Homer. Obviously the children’s literature leans away from the sexual violence and bloodshed one might see in traditional mythology, but Riordan steps even further away from the original myths to place humans in constant comedic and familiar contact with the Greek gods and goddesses. Rather than tell us about the classic heroes and heroines, Riordan decides to place 12-year-olds amidst their ranks and to retell the original myths as stories where even the youngest mortal can come out on top.

It is no wonder that so many middle schoolers in the early to mid-2000s gravitated towards Riordan’s stories. Why would you not, in some of the most turbulent years of your life, latch onto the stories that claim you can have magical powers, strength and grace by birthright alone? The alternative is looking puberty and middle school bullies right in the eye. Riordan’s repurposing of Greek myths to console middle school emotions was expertly done and excellently received for the same reason we have been listening to these myths for centuries. We created these myths to make sense of the world around us, and we’ve benefited from them and repurposed them to make us think we could be a little bit closer to those all-powerful gods.

However, middle school entertainment and accurate representation do not always go hand in hand. The reality of Greek mythology is it is often violent, grotesque, misogynistic and painful. Entering new, taxing years of their lives, those middle-turned-high school and college students dove back into the wealth of myth interpretations, but they did not find familiar stories of the past. They found a harsh mirror of their turbulent present — not comforting stories like Riordan’s with illusions of youthful grandeur, but the much more gruesome and unforgiving world of classic myths told by adults, for adults.

II. Nostalgia, the more accurate interpretation, comes from the traditional Greek roots. “Nostos” meaning homecoming and “algos” meaning pain. Nostalgia is bittersweet and painful and shows us not what we remember, but what we see now through older, more world-wearied eyes.

It is 2021, and Riordan’s original readers are in their 20s and existing in another turbulent and confusing time — the COVID-19 pandemic. The merciless gods that once brought on the juvenile gripes of middle school strife have matured and returned with much more pressing and painful problems — and once again, we are seeking comfort in isolation. Enter the book club side of TikTok, a healthy dose of nostalgia and three female authors with reinterpretations of Greek mythology — all fit for an aged-up Percy Jackson fan club. 

Unlike the classic Riordan gaze at Greek mythology as a magical world to place yourself inside of, Madeline Miller, Natalie Haynes and Jennifer Saint take a different approach. They provide unflinching looks at the pain of Greek mythology, the mercilessness of the gods and the heart-wrenching beauty of being human, especially when it hurts. For Gen-Z readers seeking that first definition of nostalgia in these three wonderful writers, beware. You will not find the space to distance yourself from your mortal form, and you will not find escape from human bloodshed and grievances. Instead, you will look much closer at the humanity of heroes and the disturbing nature of immortality.

Miller’s iconic books “Circe,” published in 2018, and “The Song of Achilles,” published in 2011, both focus on the ruthless nature of Greek mythology, the horror of eternity and the ever-encroaching fear of death. Both of Miller’s novels have been circulating the Tumblr, YouTube and TikTok reading circuits for years now, but only in the last year and a half has Miller’s readership really taken off. In December of 2020, “The Song of Achilles” re-entered The New York Times paperback bestseller list at number six, nearly 10 years after its original publication, and “Circe” stood at number seven.

“The Song of Achilles” illustrates the love story between the Greek hero, Achilles and his dear friend Patroclus. Miller creates an entire character for Patroclus rather than mark him as a footnote in Achilles’ wrath. In her interpretation, the Trojan War is simply the backdrop for a more compelling story of devotion between lovers and their quest for remembrance. In “Circe,” Miller shows immortality as a curse more than a gift. She presents the cunning sorceress Circe from Homer’s “Odyssey” as a sympathetic and often lonely character who is woman first and goddess second. Familiar stories like “Medea” and Homer’s classics are retold through Circe’s eyes, all the while providing a new life and voice to a famous mythological woman. 

Following the obsession with Miller’s queer expansion of “The Iliad” in “The Song of Achilles” and her feminist highlight reel of Greek myth in “Circe,” book club TikTok — or BookTok, as it is affectionately called — wanted more. Enter yet another retelling of “The Iliad” in Haynes’ 2019 novel, “A Thousand Ships.” This adaptation is not focused on the queer love story of Achilles and Patroclus, but on the voices of a host of different women impacted by the Trojan War. Much like “Circe” and “The Song of Achilles,” do not expect to feel that heartwarming nostalgia one might hope for when returning to myth. Instead, be prepared to mourn and cry and see the impact of war and destruction, erasure of voices and loss of faith. 

Following “A Thousand Ships” is Saint’s 2020 debut novel, “Ariadne,” which focuses on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur — a myth reinterpreted in several of Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” books. But unlike how Riordan and the original myth focus on Theseus as the hero and the Minotaur as a monster to be destroyed, “Ariadne” again leans into the more human side of the story. Saint examines the familial ties between Ariadne and her brother, the Minotaur. She investigates what it means to betray family and to interact with fate as a cruel and unforgiving force.

All four of these relatively recent releases have been talked about ad nauseam across social media platforms. Their authors have found a steady and reliable audience in the hands of the readers who supported the early 2000s YA mythology market as well. But why do writers continue to reimagine these myths? And why do we keep reading them? 

The source material of mythology is as rich as it is haunting. It has stuck around for thousands of years, not just because we love the stories of heroes defeating monsters and gods and goddesses interacting with our mortal forms. They stick around because some things are still left unsaid. We keep telling these stories not just because we are entertained by them, but because we hear them and learn something too.

Gen-Z readers grew up on the sugary sweet version of mythology  — where the gods offer you immortality and you politely decline to date your girlfriend, where the God of War drives a motorcycle and Poseidon is your dad. But when they tried to return to that version of myth, they found true nostalgia — the pain of coming home and seeing things with wiser eyes. These readers who are now growing and facing the reality of an often merciless world are retreating back into the throes of mythology, not as escapism, but as a template for explanation. 

The reinterpretations of Greek myth — now feminist, queer and unflinching — are not shying away from the reality of human struggle, but are instead taking a closer look at how we as humans have really never changed. We have always faced horror and tragedy, and we have always shared our stories to cope. Now, rather than recounting the same centuries-old stories or making them sweeter to the taste, we can look more closely at the gruesome nature of mythology and give voices to those who have not had the chance to share their epic stories. And maybe in another 15 years, Gen-Z readers will return to Hesiod and Homer and Ovid to look closer at themselves and rewrite these tales for the next generation.

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