Michille: Ancient Love Stories

Odysseus_Penelope_Louvre

In this terracotta relief circa 450 BC, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, tries to make Penelope recognize him.

Last May, I completed my Master of Liberal Arts program, and many of you know that my final project was a contemporary romance based on Sophocles’ Antigone (which is also a hero’s journey). My interest in ancient love stories was piqued and I’ve been looking at more to see if I can use them as fodder for other stories. I think a writer friend of Justine also uses ancient couples as fodder for her stories. In Harry Brown’s updated version of the story of Achilles and Hector, The Stars in Their Courses, he took the story out of ancient Greece and set it in the Old West. Achilles becomes Arch Eastmere, a gunslinger, hired to help Mark Lacy (Menelaos) get his wife (Ellen/Helen) back from Pax (Paris) after Pax abducted her. Brown brings other characters along on the ride, including Hallock (Hector), Alan (Agamemnon), and Oliver Swindon (Odysseus). There are a lot of parallels between The Iliad and The Stars in Their Courses, but Brown switched some of it up: Achilles fights from great glory in battle, but Arch Eastmore does it for a paycheck; there are no gods, but the weather and the land are described using terms that give them power over man; and he adds a hooker for Arch and the sheriff to fight over.

The problem I’m finding with looking to the ancient (or old) love stories is that many of them end badly. Okay, I thought of love stories as a good match for February with Valentine’s Day coming up, but this is straying a little from the HEA. Paris and Helen lead to the downfall of Troy and the death of Paris. Eurydice dies on Orpheus and when he tries to bring her out of the world of the dead, she falls back in. Tristan and Iseult (much like Lancelot and Guinevere) were adulterers and they both die. Let’s not forget the fake death, subsequent suicide stories like Pyramus and Thisbe and the very similar tale of Romeo and Juliet.

The story of Psyche and Cupid has potential, particularly the version that has them fighting to stay together despite a lot of outside interference. There are several versions of the tale, but I like the one that has Venus sending Psyche on a hero’s journey to accomplish a series of difficult tasks in order to get Cupid back while Cupid is fighting his own demons to get back to Psyche. They eventually have their HEA and Psyche becomes a goddess.

Many old tales have been updated to contemporaries. Beauty and the Beast has been done many times, along with Cinderella, Snow White, The Ugly Duckling, and others. Recently there has been a spate of live action remakes of old tales. I’m looking for one that is off the beaten path.

What other old love stories are out there? How have they been updated to fit a modern world?

15 thoughts on “Michille: Ancient Love Stories

  1. I’m sure there are lots, Michille, but there are two that immediately spring to mind. Firstly Warm Bodies, the zombie rom-com homage to Romeo & Juliet, but with a brilliant happy ending. I love this movie, did a post about it for Valentine’s day last year. Secondly Claiming the Highlander, a historical romance by Sherrilyn Kenyon writing as Kinley McGregor, based on Lysistrata. The women of two feuding Highland clans go on strike – no sex, cooking or laundry for the warriors of either clan until the men resolve their differences.

  2. For my next book, I’m planning to take Lilith and Samael, demons separated by Satan lest they grow too powerful, and give them a second chance at love.

    Just because the original story ends badly, yours doesn’t have to. Shakespeare has stories that he tells as both a tragedy and a comedy. I’m thinking Othello and All’s Well that Ends Well are essentially the same story. (But those could be the wrong ones.)

  3. The contemporary retelling of ancient mythological stories and fairy tales seems to demonstrate that there’s only a few central plots in all of storytelling and everything else is in the details. A lot of modern entertainment seems built on old stories: The plot for the movie Into the Woods combined a lot of fairy tales. the episodic TV show Grimm is based (loosely) on Grimm’s fairy tales, etc. I’m with Jeanne that details can be altered, and the endings can be retold to get the HEA a romance needs. But if you did Jason and Medea and the kids were kidnapped instead of killed—it could be a cliffhanger to book two in the series. 🙂

    • That’s true – leading into another story. Although, with Antigone Rising, I put all three suicides from Sophocles’ version in my story. Antigone’s suicide is la petite mort for Sarah (you gave me that idea, Kay), Haemon’s is Finch’s dark moment (turning point), and Haemon’s mother’s is her actual suicide that occurs before the story starts, but Finch doesn’t she committed suicide until this story so he has to re-grieve. I like keeping the story updates pure.

  4. My CP Jenn Windrow’s first book, to be published next year, is a Psyche/Cupid story, and she has six more planned, all based on Greek myths. Her stories vary widely, but there is character cross-over in some of those books.

  5. There are quite a few fantasy and science fiction retellings – a recent notable example is the Lunar Chronicles series, by Melissa Meyer – which starts with Cinder (who’s a cyborg). I thoroughly enjoyed the series.

    • That sounds interesting. I have difficulty with alternate worlds so paranormals with cyborgs and other creatures are not for me. I checked out Melissa Meyer’s website and I may have to try again because I love a good character arc and the blurbs make it seem like she does a good job with that.

  6. I wonder why happy endings don’t seem very ancient? Were they considered “trashy” or unrealistic back then, or something? And they just didn’t make the cut by monks or whoever was transmitting the written stories? I can’t believe people didn’t tell love stories.

    There is one beautiful tale that popped to mind, of Philemon and Baucis — the poor old couple visited by gods, and were rewarded being turned into entwining trees when they died? That’s a super-sweet tale, but I’m not sure how commercial it is. “Be kind to strangers!” I suppose we still do tell that type of tale, but nobody gets to entwine with their lover for another 200, 300 years as a reward in any of the modern versions (-:.

    Much newer, there was also the tale about the Knight who loved Christmas and would give great parties until his money ran out, and then nobody knew him. He found a tree bearing cherries in December, and . . . does this sound familiar? He gets everything back, anyway. His wife stood by him during the whole thing. But she’s more of a prop than a character.

    http://www.tellinghistory.co.uk/resources/SirCleges.html

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