The Art of Retelling and giveaway by J. David Bell

Scarecrow coverMy short story “Scarecrow” (Untreed Reads Publishing, 2013) performs a twist on the Oz legend by asking the question: what if the Scarecrow were in love . . . with Dorothy?

I’ve always been fascinated by literary retellings, particularly retellings of stories deeply rooted in a culture’s consciousness. Some of the greatest works of Western literature, from Homer’s epics to Shakespeare’s plays, are retellings of stories that circulated in the popular culture of their time. Likewise, some of the most interesting stories being told today, from Gregory Maguire’s expansion of the Oz canon to Rick Riordan’s reimagining of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, are retellings of popular lore. When we encounter such stories, we experience both a return to the familiar and a journeying into uncharted territory. These stories don’t just teach us something we didn’t know; they enable us to see in fresh, surprising ways something we thought we did.

Two of my favorite modern retellings are John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) and Ann Halam’s Snakehead (2009). The former, a recounting of the Beowulf story from the point of view of the accursed monster, is striking both for its immersion in the rhythms of Old English poetry and its philosophical complexity. It would have been easy in such a retelling simply to turn the tables, to make Beowulf the villain and Grendel the hero. But Gardner eschews such a simple reversal, instead transforming his narrator into a self-pitying, self-parodying loner who simultaneously mocks and longs for the comforting rituals of Danish society. In the climactic battle between Beowulf and Grendel, it’s possible to argue that the monster is defeated less by the hero’s physical strength than by his moral certainty: Beowulf is an existentialist in Gardner’s book, one who recognizes the ultimate futility of all that people do but who nonetheless takes action against Grendel’s all-consuming nihilism. Thus he taunts his antagonist:

As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin; but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It’s coming, my brother. Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, turn plains to stone, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again. My promise. Time is the mind, the hand that makes (fingers on harpstrings, hero-swords, the acts, the eyes of queens.) By that I kill you.

Beowulf’s promise may not hold back the darkness forever. But it’s enough to make Grendel scurry away, one-armed and dying, into the void he’s created for himself. Snakehead, Halam’s retelling of another hero/monster tale—the Perseus myth—is similarly challenging and refreshing. It’s no Clash of the Titans or The Lightning Thief; action is kept to a minimum, which allows Halam to explore the culture of ancient Greece and the relationships between characters (particularly Perseus and Andromeda, who in this retelling is a refugee seeking to escape her sentence). It’s a tribute to this book’s brilliance that the archaic society seems at once astonishingly modern and utterly alien—or to put this another way, Halam succeeds in showing that what appears bizarre and otherworldly to the people of one time and place (human sacrifice, conversations with immortals, divine curses) may have appeared routine and commonplace to others. One of Halam’s more inspired contrivances is to have Andromeda, the child of Africa, bring phonetic script to the Greek isles, where this new form of artistry is described in language befitting its mystery and majesty:

She saw a Greek city, rich in marble buildings, with vivid-columned temples. Rivers of light were springing from it and flying across the lands, weaving a fabric richer than her eyes could follow, vanishing north, east, west, south, to the ends of the earth. . . . And she was part of the dazzling, world-spanning pattern that sprang from that shining city, because she had made the flying marks, because she had made the leap of power.

As in Gardner’s tale, so in Snakehead there’s a sense in which the monstrous is defeated (or at least held at bay) by language: celebrating the invention of literature, this is a myth about how myth came to be written. Largely because its characters are teenagers, this book tends to be classified as Young Adult fiction, and I have no doubt that thoughtful young adults have read it with insight and delight. But as the above passage suggests, it’s a book for all of us, a book that reimagines one of the oldest and most enduring of Western stories in language as beautiful as myth itself. Retellings like this remind us that no story is complete, that stories hold stories within stories within stories. They persuade us that new worlds are possible. At their best, they renew not only literature but the act of reading itself.

Author bio: J. David Bell (the sometime pen name of Joshua David Bellin) has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember, but it’s only in the past five years that he’s focused on getting it published. His debut novel, a futuristic YA titled Survival Colony Nine, will be published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in fall 2014. His science-fiction and fantasy short stories, meanwhile, appear in such publications as Bellow, A cappella Zoo, Cover of Darkness, Farspace 2, Jersey Devil Press, The Fast-Forward Festival, and Niteblade. Josh teaches at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, enjoys the environment (and is active in the movement to keep it livable), blogs at http://bellsyells.blogspot.com, and tweets @JoshuaDBellin.

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