Fox & Wit Weekly Book Recommendations: 6 Books Inspired by Greek or Norse Myth Part One

Posted by Mary Nguyen on

Every week we'll put together a list of book recommendations which you can find here on our blog but also our instagram @foxandwit if you'd like to give us a follow!

I have THOUGHTS so bear with me here. I wrote a whole blog post by accident.

The “problematic” aspect of the Lies We Sing to the Sea is the author saying she thinks The Odyssey is dense thus she didn’t read the entire source material. Underwood isn’t wrong. I own a translated copy myself, which I have read through, yes. 2 years later hey hey!

The argument is a bit confusing. Most folks know the basis of the Odyssey and there’s really no need to read the original in my personal opinion. As a former professor who has taught an entire course on Fairytales and Folklore for 3 years, I can assure you most people have never read some of these original source pieces and people have written plenty of Beauty and the Beast retellings yet no one seems to take an issue with it. So unless we’re going to bring everyone to the table to ask why they’re retelling folklore and fairytale they didn’t read the source material for, this controversy seems…confusing to me. ✨ We gonna call up DISNEY? ✨

I’ll leave this review from a different literature professor who read the book and makes an interesting case about the book:

“ ‘Faithfulness’ is often compromised in adaptation (for good or for ill) for the sake of reconfiguring the story to audiences beyond those the work was originally intended. What Underwood does here, is to imagine stories that were never written in the backstories of the heartlessly executed maids seen as polluted upon Odysseus's return--women with no voice, no power, and yet blamed for the ills of those with power, She imagines real consequences to such a heinous act that curses Ithaca for centuries to come. And she has the audacity to insert the existence of women (lesbian/bi/ and straight) in a space that was never designed for them, give them agency, and tell a story where she, and others like her, can see themselves.“

I can get on board with a story that takes a classic—one that mis*gynistically treats women—and turns it into something that gives (queer) women agency and a voice. In fact, this sounds powerful AF to me and a big 🖕 to the patriarchy so….

Furthermore, there are dozens upon dozens of translations of the Odyssey, so honestly, what is “the source” of the Odyssey that she would have been expected to read? Dr. Emily Wilson was the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English a few years ago and she’s received so much acclaim for various reasons. I’ll leave a quote here regarding her translation from Janey Tracey:

“Wilson’s critical perspective allows her to correct the anachronistic mis*gyny that appeared in previous translations. In arguably the most disturbing section of the poem, Telemachus m*rders all of the [maids] who slept with Penelope’s suitors. Wilson’s predecessors translated a descriptor of the young women as a mis*gynistic slur: ‘sl*ts,’ ‘wh*res,’ and ‘creatures,’ to name a few. Some would argue that they were simply reproducing the s*xism of Homer’s era, but according to Wilson, the ancient Greek word has no such dehumanizing connotation. Rather, it simply refers to ‘female ones.’ There was certainly mis*gyny in Homer’s time, but this specific type of s*xual shaming is an ‘imported’ type of s*xism. So instead, Wilson translates this word as ‘girls,’ which both maintains the more neutral tone of the original Greek word and, in context, makes the girls’ de*ths feel brutally harrowing:”

In essence, Wilson’s translation humanizes the women who were m*rdred and written off as “wh*res” and “creatures,” and were “tainted”—for a lack of a better word—in translation (FYI These are the same women whose stories are retold in Lies We Sing the Sea!)

Dr. Wilson’s translation absolutely proves that translated text matters (raise your hand if you’ve read Babel and got a glimpse into the scholarship of translation). So which “source material” was Underwood supposed to have read? Even the version in Greek isn’t considered the “original” given how its been edited through the centuries.

Lies We Sing to the Sea really opens up a nuanced conversation about retellings, adaptations, and translations; it saddens me to see it get flattened to “this book is problematic because the author didn’t read all of The Odyssey and is doing a retelling of it! Don’t read it!” It’s really not that black and white.

But putting aside the very scholar conversation above, the question I often wonder is, “what is the point of a retelling if you aren’t offering the reader anything new?” I mean think about it. What is it that you love when reading a retelling? You probably want the bone structure and the tropes of the story that you’ve come to love but you want to be surprised and entertained. You want fresh.

Think of all the times you’ve groaned to yourself, “ANOTHER retelling of x, y, z?” Is it because you feel like these retellings aren’t offering you anything “new”?

Am I wrong? If an author gives you any retelling and it’s exactly like the original (the average person hasn’t picked up the original mythology, folklore, or fairytale from centuries ago, they’re basing it on a familiar framework—they’re inaccessible in many ways), there’s little reason for you to be invested.

And if you want a retelling that is familiar but also fresh, guess what? You are in essence getting something unfaithful to the source text.

So here’s my question about Lies We Sing to the Sea. If the author read the source material would it have mattered? Because she wrote in queer characters where they did not exist in the a translated source text and as such, is already undoing the faithfulness to the source text. How does it matter when it comes to an end product that would ✨ always ✨ be “unfaithful” to the original in so many ways? These women have voices and agency rather than just being k*lled off and that’s the end of their story.

Do we sit down and nitpick what an author is “allowed” to change in a retelling and what areas they’re supposed to maintain faithfulness? Do you see where I’m going with this? Where’s the line?

Again, do we go back and question anyone who has ever written a Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast retelling and ask if they’ve read original source material? If the author of a retelling book you absolutely love says “no, I didn’t read the original source material” would you boycott your beloved story all of a sudden…? Why? Did it change the end product you consumed and enjoyed?

Did you read the original source material for it to even matter to you or ya’know stories like Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, etc, are all so familiar to most of us anyway? (Yo, are we gonna pretend like we didn’t SparkNote this stuff at some point to get through English classes? 🤣 I was a lit professor for 8 years. I know what my students did bc I was just as guilty as a student lmao.)

There’s so much nuance here that frankly people aren’t considering.

Now, whether people are interested in reading it or not is an entirely different story aka read whatever you want. Tastes are personal. I’m not here to judge what people personally enjoy and don’t enjoy. This isn’t the point of the post at all. Some folks just find mythology retelling absolutely boring and that’s cool.

p.s. No. I have not read the book yet and am responding to the chatter surrounding the book. Will I read this book? Yes. Will I compare it to my translated edition of The Odyssey? No. *gestures to my points above*

p.p.s. No. This is not a personal attack on anyone. I’m just considering the nuance of this broader conversation from the lens of an academic scholar who has indeed read loads of scholarship on the practices of adaptations, retellings, and translations and this fits directly in. I think it’s worth thinking about. There are just different rules at play when a story has been circulating for ✨ centuries. ✨

p.p.p.s. If you’re a diehard fan of The Odyssey and someone writing a retelling about a beloved epic poem of yours without having read the source text is really upsetting, you’re allowed to feel whatever you want. This post isn’t meant to invalidate those feelings so much as offer a different perspective, which is valid in its own way.

p.p.p.p.s. I typed this up on my phone so idk. Don’t judge my grammar and misspellings or whatever. It’s basically a rapid brain dump so welcome to the inside of my unedited ADHD and autistic brain. Is this sh*t even coherent?


Anyways.. This week's recommendations are books that are inspired by Greek or Norse Myth.

The Witch's Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet


Lies We Sing to the Sea by Sarah Underwood

Secrets of the Broken King by Eliza Raine and Rose Wilson


And lastly,

Circle by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


We hope you enjoyed this part one themed recommendation on books inspired by Greek or Norse Myth!
You can follow us on instagram for new weekly recommendations or you can sign up for our newsletter where we'll send out a round up once every month.

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