A Legacy of Myths

Book Review by James McCaughey

Colm Toibin House of Names, Picador. May 2017

RRP: $29.99 h/b 261 pp

ISBN: 978 1760 551421Toibin 2.jpg

The ancient Greeks have left us a legacy of myths.

Some of them are still current – the stories of Oedipus or Antigone, for instance.

Others, though less known, the story of Pygmalion say, have worked their way into our imaginative landscape – in Pygmalion’s case in the shape of My Fair Lady or George Bernard Shaw’s play that bears its name.

The classical Greeks themselves inherited these myths from still more ancient Greeks, stories handed down from preliterate times by singers, or perpetuated as cult narratives.

Dense, simple and almost epigrammatic, they can be rendered in a small number of sentences. A man discovers that he has married his mother and killed his father so he puts out his own eyes. A sculptor makes a statue of the most beautiful woman in the world; he falls in love with her and marries her. A woman is forbidden to bury the body of a brother who has died assaulting her city; she defies the edict and is entombed.

Most of these myths are dark, dense nuclei of energy that threaten to explode into our lives.

From the beginning of the tradition of Greek literature the Greeks took up these myths, reflected on them, reworked them and created out of them new worlds that their audiences could enter. These writers refashion ancient myths. Expand them. Alter details to suit their own imagination, adapt them to their contemporary worlds. Over and over again.

They take the darkness of these myths and invite the audience to recognise in them images of their own world.

Euripides wrote a play in which a woman kills her own children; against all odds, we sympathise with her, perhaps even applaud her. We find ourselves in her.

A myth less known to modern readers, but one that preoccupied the imagination of the classical Greeks was that of the murder of Agamemnon, king of Argos and conqueror of Troy. In order to obtain fair winds so that his fleet could embark upon that expedition, he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. In revenge, his wife, Clytemnestra, killed him when he returned from Troy. And then in turn her children, Orestes and Electra, executed her, an act of matricide that is or is not later resolved, depending on which version you read.

This story is best known through Aeschylus’ great sequence, The Oresteian Trilogy.

 Now it has been taken up by Ireland’s great novelist, Colm Tóibín.

And refashioned according to his sensibility

Re-entered and made his own.


Readers familiar with Tóibín’s work will know his capacity to create remarkable female characters (for example in Brooklyn and Nora Webster) who take us into their world, and allow, or compel, us to see the world through the prism of their experience and sensibility.

A world defined by woman.

So it will come as no surprise to discover that Tóibín has created a marvellous new version of Clytemnestra, of her dark, powerful and tragic world. Every step of her path is traced and recreated in absorbing detail, drawing us into its power, its brilliance and destructiveness.

The account of the fabricated marriage of Iphigenia (the cover under which Agamemnon gets his hands on his daughter) is riveting – as is his retelling of the slow terrible fury that developed between Clytemnestra and her daughter Electra. In the Greek versions this is a dark and almost inexplicable node. Tóibín unfurls it it with effortless, if disturbing, clarity.

Here, for example, is Electra observing Clytamnestra and her lover, Aegistheus;

Now I noted a hard detachment. They had each taken the measure of each other and learned the outlines of some foul truth.

 It amused me how natural they made this appear; it was not something that seemed ready to break. I understood their dilemma. It would be difficult, I thought, for my mother and Aegistheus to separate. Too much had happened.

Tóibín is magnificent in his account of the Greek gods, an aspect of the Greek world and its literature which often perplexes the modern reader.

Here is Electra again;

We live in a strange time, a time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world scarcely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.

Perhaps Tóibín can write this way because he comes from Ireland with its own traditions of gods and heroes; or its own living and dying god of the Catholic Church. He senses both the power and history of those gods, their impact on people’s minds and hearts and what happens when they die, or absent themselves. This is so much more interesting than a sterile debate as to whether god or gods exist.

Here is another passage;

I went out and looked at the sky. And all I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What once had been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory, locked in its rhythms.

Modern readers will find this novel an absorbing read even if they do not know the Greek world and its myths. For those that do, it will be an invitation to re-enter that dark and ancient world, to enjoy a new version of this compelling tale – written in the great tradition of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Like many of us, the reader will ask, could this world be mine?

Often, I suspect, the answer will be, Yes.

James McCaughey did his graduate work in Classical Greek at the University of Dublin. He has taught at Princeton and Bryn Mawr in the USA and at the University of Melbourne and Deakin in Australia. He is currently writing and performing a series called Homer Prepares –  re-enacting the twenty four books of The Iliad