Why We Keep Revisiting Old Stories

Alexander Hellebaut | © Culture Trip
Alexander Hellebaut | © Culture Trip
Photo of Matthew Janney
Uk Books Editor16 July 2018

Retelling stories from bygone eras is an ancient practice. As the desire to revisit Shakespearean texts and Classical myth appears as popular as ever, Culture Trip investigates why these stories in particular have such enduring relevance.

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations,” said Mark Twain. Fortunately, literature is not based on laws of novelty but the endless promise of possibility. Ovid and Shakespeare knew this, both drawing from old tales as inspiration for their works. As does Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch, the creators of The Lion King, West Side Story and Westworld, who are part of a long line of writers and thinkers who used Shakespeare’s plays as a thematic point of departure.

In June 2018 Preti Taneja won the Desmond Elliott Prize – widely regarded as the UK’s most prestigious award for debut novelists – for her work We That Are Young, inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear. The novel takes place in India, as an ageing patriarch prepares to hand over his corporate empire to his three daughters.

“I did King Lear for A levels at school”, Taneja told Culture Trip. “I remember being in that classroom and just falling into a new world when I realised what language could do in this play.” But what really resonated with Taneja went beyond just intellectual curiosity. “It was the first time I could see anything like what I was hearing about at home about my family history of partition, discussed in an English classroom,” she says.

That Shakespeare’s 17th-century play based on a mythological Celtic king could illustrate part of Taneja’s family history in India says something profound about the play’s potential to travel. We That Are Young is not a reimagining or a retelling, but a translation, highlighting how the central preoccupations of King Lear can be mapped onto different cultures. “Translation as a metaphor works very well when I think about what I was doing with this play. It’s not just a critical commentary about contemporary India, it’s absolutely to do with how a language travels and how culture travels,” says Taneja.

Preti Taneja at the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize ceremony at Fortnum and Mason in London. | © Anthony Upton / Photocall Productions

To be timeless, a story must also travel through cultures. Taneja cites Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres as a great example of how to successfully bring a story into a new era. “In [King] Lear there’s a servant culture. In A Thousand Acres that didn’t translate to Iowa in the ‘80s and ‘90s but she managed to find a way round that because the women take the role of the servants as well,” Taneja says.

If on the surface, it is the parallels between King Lear’s oppressive social structures and contemporary Indian culture that speaks to Taneja, it is the play’s deeper comment on the human condition that gives it a timeless quality. “Underneath the surface there is a sort of epic time that is operating in the book,” says Taneja. If a story is to span not just centuries, but cultures too, it must say something fundamental about humanity, about the way we all suffer, dream, live and die irrespective of environment, upbringing or aspiration.

“If Shakespeare is our contemporary, it is not because he shares our attitudes but because he shares our agonies,” writes Adam Gopnik, discussing Penguin’s series of Shakespearean reimaginings celebrating the writer’s 400th anniversary, penned by writers including Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson. While our attitudes may be fickle, there is something unchanging about humanity’s deepest fears and will to survive; they exist outside the ebb and flow of moral tides. “What grips us is seeing that everybody loves, everybody dies, everybody feels jealous,” says Taneja. This universal appeal is what Shakespeare manages to exploit, and what allows others to do so in different contexts.

Many stories within the Classical Greco-Roman mythology tradition also appear to tap into something fundamental about the human condition, something that cuts across class, race or gender. “Myth is somehow primary, in the sense that the first literature was probably stories about spirits and monsters told around ancient campfires, and in that, when it works, it feels irreducible, and perhaps irreducibly moving, as though myth were the primes of fiction,” says Zachary Mason, an American author whose new book Metamorphica reimagines Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Zachary Mason | © Kai Parviainen

Mason is one of a number of writers who have recently published mythological retellings. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe contemporary retellings of the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively – both enjoyed rave reviews, while Neil Gaiman’s most recent book Norse Mythology replaced Zeus, Poseidon and Hades with Thor, Fenrir and Aesir.

It is this irreducibility, that allows myths to perpetually converse with the present. “The Iliad suggests it’s been a bad idea for Western powers to get involved in protracted military campaigns in the Middle East since at least the dawn of history,” Mason says. He also highlights “the modern equivalent to the Homeric kings and heroes aren’t statesmen or soldiers but NBA stars – rich, vain, famous, proud, contentious, widely admired, physically superior, sometimes thoughtless, not necessarily very bright.” Read in this light, myths remain relevant not through the originality of their plot, but through the modern-day sublimations of these ancient models.

“Myth is about fundamental forms, explored through stories whose rules are those of dreams,” says Mason. Though in reality humans do not have the power of flight nor the biological flexibility to transform into animals, the metaphors of myth are universally relatable. At a time where the world’s borders – both literally and culturally – are hardening, literature’s ability to shed light on our commonality feels important.

“Texts from the past can absolutely help us find our way forwards in troubled times,” says Becky Hardie, Deputy Publishing Director at Hogarth. “I think it gives us a sense of continuity, connection to the past and much-needed perspective. Look at the resurgence of interest in dystopian fiction at the moment, especially The Handmaid’s Tale,” she says.

Troubled times are not specific to one culture, so literature’s ability to be culturally translated is cause for optimism. If Shakespeare and Classical myth provide ways to broaden empathy, to retell stories from multiple and new perspectives, should they not be retold over and over again? Taneja has worked with refugees and different groups performing Shakespeare across the globe, from Kosovo to Kashmir. She suggests translating Shakespeare’s plays to different contexts can be a powerful mechanism to mediate conflict. “You become part of a universal conversation [and] that says something about how culture travels, but it also says something about how it’s shared,” says Taneja. “We need that now more than ever.”

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