The Books Briefing: Ancient Tales Make an Epic Comeback

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The oldest stories known to humanity are also some of the most powerful. Over thousands of years, they’ve worked their way into the fabric of culture, with numerous retellings that reflect the values of the present or reveal the biases of the past. The scholar Martin Puchner shows how works such as The Tale of Genji, the very first novel in history, mark major technological and cultural milestones. A popular comic-book series based on the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic poem about the divine prince Rama, has helped many kids understand their Indian identity—but also contains portrayals that reinforce certain prejudiced ideals.

A debate surrounding Neil Gaiman’s rendition of Norse myths illustrates how such stories can evolve and be reclaimed over time. Chigozie Obioma uses The Odyssey as inspiration for a modern love story about a farmer’s journey from Nigeria to Cyprus. And Pat Barker fills in gaps in The Iliad’s portrayal of war and its consequences by giving a silent supporting character a voice.

Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.

Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

What We’re Reading

Chigozie Obioma explores the transcontinental sacrifices made for love
“In rendering his protagonist’s journey to Cyprus, and the scene that greets the unknowing Chinonso when he arrives, Obioma recasts Homer’s Odyssey. For both tales’ heroes, ‘mere survival is the most amazing feat of all.’ But where Odysseus thrashed ‘under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea,’ Chinonso is betrayed by his fellow man.”

📚 THE ODYSSEY, by Homer

The technological shift behind the world’s first novel
“In a globetrotting, epoch-spanning history, [Martin] Puchner argues that written works—and the ever-changing technologies used to sustain them—have defined societies since the beginning of recorded time.”

📚 THE TALE OF GENJI, by Murasaki Shikibu
📚 THE DIARY OF LADY MURASAKI, by Murasaki Shikibu
📚 THE WRITTEN WORLD, by Martin Puchner

The dark side of the comics that redefined Hinduism
“I didn’t understand how ideals of obedience to authority—something the comics taught—can feed systemic inequality. I was just reading about heroes who made me feel stronger than I was, and who would teach me, I believed, how to be Indian.”

📚 AMAR CHITRA KATHA, created by Anant Pai
📚 RAMAYANA, by Valmiki

How Neil Gaiman triggered a debate about who, exactly, owns pagan tales
“Since there’s no real ‘original’ with which to make comparisons, it’s impossible to know precisely what a Norse tale sounded like in the first place.”

📚 NORSE MYTHOLOGY, by Neil Gaiman
📚 PROSE EDDA, by Snorri Sturluson

Retelling The Iliad through the eyes of a female slave
“The great trick of The Silence of the Girls is that it fills in the borders of one character in literature while uncovering the vast gaps that persist in the rest of the Western canon. How many stories like this one remain to be told?”

📚 THE ILIAD, by Homer

You Recommend

Last week, we asked to hear about your favorite musical books. Marianne Bell, a reader in Token Creek, Wisconsin, recommends A Power Stronger Than Itself, George E. Lewis’s “comprehensive and incisive history” of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. And Peggy Rose, of Windsor, California, recommends Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel about “music and musicians … faced with total destruction.”

What’s a book inspired by ancient myths that you would recommend? Tweet at us with the hashtag #TheAtlanticBooksBriefing, or fill out the form here.

This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. The book on her bedside table right now is All the Wild Hungers, by Karen Babine.

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