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We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death

with 4 comments

How many points do I get for quoting Swinburne’s Hymn to Proserpine? Oh, none, because I haven’t actually read the poem, I just grabbed a quote to look sophisticated while doing a round-up of Persephone-inspired books? That seems fair.*

As I’m sure many of you have noticed, there has been a rash of Persephone retellings as of late. Editorial Anonymous noted as much a year ago, and now we can see the fruits of her prognostications. And, as you might be able to tell from my sidebar, I like making lists! So here you go, in order of forthcoming to least recent. Let me know if I’ve missed any!

Everneath, Brodi Ashton
(January 2012)

Abandon, Meg Cabot
(April 2011)

The Goddess Test, Aimee Carter
(April 2011)

Falling Under, Gwen Hayes
(March 2011)

Radiant Darkness, Emily Whitman
(April 2009)

Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of these, although in an ideal world where I have all of the time and none of the Words with Friends Angry Birds distractions, I’d make a project of reading them all. Plus some of the other Greek mythology-inspired fiction that’s out there – particularly Stephanie Spinner’s Quiver, because hello! Atalanta! Atalanta is my homegirl. I wish there was more Atalanta out there, but Persephone seems to be where it’s at – the only Grecian girl to come close is Helen (see Nobody’s Princess and Starcrossed).

(Actually, the gorgons don’t do too badly for themselves, I’m quite looking forward to reading Sweet Venom, and Dusssie looks adorable, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The fact of the matter is, what with the great success of Percy Jackson and the renaissance of fairy tale retellings in YA, we should be seeing a lot more myth-inspired fiction out there. But it seems pretty contained to Persephone. Why? I can think of a few reasons; Persephone represents the perfect confluence of trends: the retelling, the flirtation with the dark side, themes of death, the ultimate bad boy, and let’s face it – nobody makes for a pretty dead girl cover better than Hades’ Queen herself.

But writers don’t think about these things when they’re writing their books. The authors that sat down and penned these books started out because they loved the myth of Persephone more than any other myth. What is it about Persephone that calls to people? For me – because I love the myth too, although it’s not my favorite (I’m partial to Artemis and her devotees) – it boils down to a few things.

First, Persephone is young. She’s a girl, and more importantly, a daughter. That has powerful resonance to it — she’s not just another ineffable, adult goddess sitting on an Olympian throne. So seventh graders (I was familiar with the myth before then, but this is when it came up in curriculum) can relate to that, I think, which is important because this girl is responsible for the seasons. Maybe it’s different for people who grew up in milder climates, but here in the Northeast, everything revolves around the seasons. So: a daughter (like me) whose loss has such incredible consequences that it causes the seasons, around which the world revolves.

There’s romance, too – Hades is a tragic figure, and Persephone’s story is tragic. Lots of us are given over to that dark romanticism, all Byronic and tortured and whatnot – why else would The Phantom of the Opera be so popular? But Persephone never ends up with her lighter counterpart, as does Christine. She’s trapped: she ate the seeds, she can never fully go back. That’s what’s fascinating, I think – trying to divine how she feels about it. How you might feel about it, if you were her. Angry? Bitter? Or – as several of these retellings go – does she learn to love him? Did she love him from the first?

Persephone’s story isn’t unlike other female figures in Greek origin myths – Apollo and Daphne give us the laurel tree, and Zeus pursues countless maidens. While she is also the object of desire, it’s not that objectification that gives her power and drives her story. It’s the love of her mother, Demeter, and that’s what so attractive: the notion of being so beautiful a god is compelled to turn himself into a swan, cow, golden shower (gross), etc. is unsettling. But the notion that someone loves me so much they bring on winter when they lose me? That’s something else. This power, combined with all the tantalizing ways you could interpret Persephone’s attitude towards being Hades’ Queen, and the delicious, dark, romantic undertones of it all, are what make the Persephone myth attractive to me.

I asked my good friend Julie for some of her thoughts, as I know she’s written some Persephone-inspired stuff in the past, and she had some excellent points as well:

In addition to being intrigued by the “the whole ‘being taken into another world’ narrative arc, being tossed into wholly unfamiliar territory and having to find your way, get the hang of a new world, etc” aspect, she says,

To me, the reallllly interesting thing about Hades is that he isn’t as big of a horndog as ANYONE EVER in the pantheon, especially when compared to his two brothers. Aside from persephone, the only “CHASING A NUBILE YOUNG WOMAN!!” myth I’ve ever heard for him was Menthe, and that’s quickly curtailed because Persephone is wildly jealous and turns her into a plant. Which seems to simultaneously show 1) Hades/Persephone is one of the few god!pairings that doesn’t involve going off and banging every nymph and mortal to cross his path; 2) she did get attached to him despite being abducted.

I recently saw a Persephone!reincarnate rejected from an RPG because they focused too much on her being the cold-hearted queen of the underworld, but neglected her role in fertility and growth. So that also appeals to me, that she occupies both roles: vegetation goddess AND death goddess. ‘Chthonic’ deity meaning underworld/under the earth, and her ‘under the earth’ role applying to both death AND new life as crops.

Sorta tied to the above, I just love the cyclical nature of the tale: the going away and coming back, the longing and loss, the reunion.”

Obviously, there’s a lot of richness to mine from the Persephone myth. I do hope we see more myths inspired by other heroines of Greek mythology, though — I’d love to see someone give some freakin’ agency to Andromeda, and more depth to Ariadne, and a life to Eurydice. In other words, let’s separate the woman from the hero. (Of course, some ladies – like Atalanta, Circe, and Hippolyta – need no help, and we should see more of them, too.)

*I do really like this verse from his other Proserpine poem, The Garden of Proserpine, though:

From too much love of living,    
  From hope and fear set free,    
We thank with brief thanksgiving    
  Whatever gods may be    
That no life lives for ever;            
That dead men rise up never;    
That even the weariest river    
  Winds somewhere safe to sea.


Written by Emily G.

January 9, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Posted in books, lists

4 Responses

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  1. Har har my off-the-cuff rambles. ❤ Once again, though, I'm bemused by how literary trends are dogging our/my own writing interests — until you mentioned it, I had no idea that Persephone was experiencing such popularity! If I'd only gotten off my butt and finished the retelling I started in 2006, I could've been cashing in on this. :{

    Julie (@chthonian)

    January 10, 2012 at 12:10 am

  2. I am such a sucker for fairy tale retellings ever since the Once Upon A Time series I spotted at work a few years back (note, that may not be what it was actually called, I haven’t worked in Teen in a while). I know a lot of people get mad when they see retellings/remakes/reboots in books and film crying “no one has original ideas anymore, waah!” Personally, I love retellings because it takes classic tales and puts them into new light, giving you a chance to view them differently. Mythology, especially, is a ripe field for this because these were our original heroes and the stories told about the gods and their exploits really stand up to the test of time.

    …except that golden shower one because: ick.


    January 10, 2012 at 10:18 am

  3. Of course Persephone can’t come home. Haven’t you seen the Searchers?

    kromelizard (@kromelizard)

    January 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm

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