Reimagining Myths and Legends: Adapting older Stories to a Modern Context

by Ry Herman

I have always been fascinated by the period when Odysseus, great hero of Greek mythology, became the World’s Biggest Asshole.

That probably requires some explanation. The Greek myths were never written down in any single, canonical text. They changed over time, and the shifting details could radically alter the meaning. The earliest stories of Odysseus depict him as a hero with a keen mind and a silver tongue. Two thousand years later, the same archetype would show up in fairy tales like The Brave Little Tailor, where ogres and armies are defeated by clever tricks (“Nobody is murdering me!”)

But there was a point in between when attitudes about cleverness went through a complete reversal. The figure of the slimy politician became the most hated one in Greece, and suddenly Odysseus turned into a liar, a cheat, a schemer who sent braver warriors out to die while he talked and talked and talked. Eventually, the pendulum swung back again, cleverness became admirable once more, and Odysseus switched back from villain to hero.

I had all this very much in mind when I started writing queer vampire romance novels.

Hecate Became Persephone’s “Companion” and “Close Friend”

As it happens, the Greek myth I adapted was a different one – Persephone, the goddess who spends half of every year trapped in the underworld. I picked the version where the witch goddess Hecate goes searching for her after her abduction, because I was writing a story about a witch falling in love with a vampire who spends half her time dead. It seemed like a good fit, even if queer romance wasn’t the original intent.

But that’s what I wanted to work with – the flexibility stories offer, especially those with their origins in myths and legends. What we think of as archetypes aren’t set in stone. They can take on a different meaning when the culture around them alters in some way; they can even flip around 180 degrees, transforming bad guys into good guys, or vice versa. And in my books, I wanted to participate in one of those cultural movements, one that’s occurring right now.

It wasn’t long ago that characters coded as queer were inevitably villains. But the culture is changing. Now they can be depicted with the humanity they were previously denied. Now they can make that 180 degree flip, from scary sex monster to romantic protagonist.

“…The Soft, Shivering Touch of the Lips on the Super-Sensitive Skin of My Throat, and the Hard Dents of Two Sharp Teeth…” (Dracula, Chapter 3)

Monsters usually have their origins in what people fear. And during the Victorian era, when the modern incarnation of the European vampire myth was formulated, that meant sex. Nineteenth century vampire tales were brimming with it. Dracula, the dangerously seductive immigrant. Carmilla, the mysterious lesbian.

The sexy vampire and the queer vampire are still very much with us. But in a different time, they can carry a different message. When monsters represent the feared other, the narrative changes when those others are finally acknowledged as being our friends, our lovers, our family, or ourselves.

That’s when we see the monsters undergo a transformation. Readers find familiar characters in different roles – solving crimes, or saving the world. Or, in romances like the ones I write, falling in love. The villain becomes the hero, and the vampire protagonist is born.

In 1837, She Dissolves Into Foam; in 2021, She Gets a Girlfriend

This has always been the nature of stories, to change with the times, to adapt to new meanings. When folktales evolved into literary fantasy, that tradition became embedded in the form. Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid by mixing older mermaid stories with the alchemical theories of Paracelsus. When the main character dying to get a soul was no longer viewed as an ideal ending, Disney changed it to their own version of happily ever after: heteronormative marriage. And then writers like Julia Ember and Ann Claycomb used the same plot elements to write queer mermaid love stories. Their books, and so many other brilliant and queer retellings of every tale imaginable – books by Malinda Lo, by Melissa Bashardoust, by T. Kingfisher – were a big part of what inspired me to write my own.

Archetypal characters embody ideas and forces. They’re ways to explain the world. When the world changes, so do they. My books speak to some of the forces at play in our particular era; future generations are going to go through their own, entirely different seismic cultural shifts.

I’m eager to discover which historical monster becomes the next heroic protagonist.

Ry Herman’s latest queer supernatural romcom, Bleeding Hearts, is published by Jo Fletcher Books on 10th June. Angela and Chloë overcame almost impossible odds to be together, but their final obstacle might be insurmountable. Is the divide between the living and the dead too wide for them to cross?

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