By Tracy Barrett, W & M Contributor
I occasionally get questions from readers of my historical fiction asking why I deviated from the real story of the Minotaur or the Odyssey. By “the real story,” what they mean is a familiar telling. But the version that my questioners think is the authentic tale is just one in a long line of tellings of a myth or legend, and my books are merely the most recent addition to that line.
Myths were told orally, most of them for centuries, before someone wrote them down. What that writer set down on paper (or clay, or parchment) was only one version, neither more nor less authentic than any other version that either didn’t get written down or whose written form has been lost. Usually the same basic story elements persist from one telling to another, but sometimes they are drastically altered. Look, for example, at three different (ancient) endings to the Odyssey, all found in ancient written sources of equal “authenticity”:
- Odysseus ruled in Ithaca until the end of his days
- being sick of the sea, he walked inland until someone didn’t recognize the oar over his shoulder and asked, “What are you doing with that winnowing-fan?”
- he sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and never returned
or the two descriptions of Ariadne’s fate after she was abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus after he killed her brother, the Minotaur:
- she hanged herself
- she married Dionysus/Bacchus and became immortal
or three levels of Helen’s culpability in the Trojan War:
- she went willingly to Troy with Paris
- she was abducted by Paris and went to Troy against her will
- she hid out virtuously in Egypt, while a phantom double went to Troy.
If the ancients didn’t find one version more true, more original than the others, why do modern readers?
In my young-adult novel King of Ithaka, Telemachos is indignant that bards change the details of stories. He is told, “Nobody expects a poet to tell the truth. It’s a better story this way.” This is even more true when a writer is retelling story that was fictional to begin with. What “authentic” story am I deviating from if I create a centaur sidekick for Telemachos, if I have Ariadne choose willingly to stay on Naxos, if my Minotaur in Dark of the Moon is no monster but a horribly deformed man? I’m not changing the “real” story. I’m making a new one, just as the other tellers before me have done.