Abandoned children, scorned suitors, valiant women and men struggling against fate, shape-shifting tricksters, Pyrrhic victories and rites of passage. All this and more, one would imagine, is rich fodder for the novelist. However, mythology and its tropes -- "public dreams", as Joseph Campbell once called them -- seem to be all but absent from the contemporary novel.
Exceptions do exist, of course, the most famous being Joyce's Ulysses, patterned on the events of The Odyssey. More recently, Salman Rushdie used the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice to underpin his "rock'n'roll novel", The Ground Beneath Her Feet. His earlier Midnight's Children, too, played with Indian myth, especially when it came to the characters of Major Shiva and Parvati-the-witch. Magic realism as a genre is especially suited to the recreation and subversion of myth, but it's not the only way to do it: see Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, full of delicious re-imaginings and inversions of Odysseus' return to Ithaca.
Such examples, though, are few and far between, barring work set in ancient times — such as the novels of Mary Renault — or those working in fantasy and science fiction who use myth to give resonance to otherworldly settings. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, for instance, was supposed to be inspired in part by Nordic sagas. Young adult fiction, too, makes rich use of myths: take Rick Riordan's The Lightening Thief, not to mention the exploits of a certain bespectacled young wizard.
Some of the titles from British publisher Canongate's Myths series are instructive in what they reveal about the way we look at ancient myths today. Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, re-tells The Odyssey from the point of view of a self-conscious Penelope and her serving maids. Jeannette Winterson's The Weight presents Atlas as a hero pondering over fate and responsibility. Alessandro Barricco's An Iliad removes references to the gods and their actions on the battlefield. (Wolfgang Peterson's Hollywood epic, Troy, did the same thing. Both works suffer as a consequence.)
This really is at the heart of the modern novelist's discomfort with myth. In our post-Enlightenment age, it's secular verities that are supposed to prevail, not religious ones. Free will — and the free market — is the presiding deity. Thus, the gods, when they do appear in fiction, are treated with dark irony, as with John Banville's The Infinities, or for comic effect, as with Marie Philips' Gods Behaving Badly.
However, to think of the appearance and actions of divinities in ancient epics as exclusively religious and sacred would be a mistake. Those who inhabit Mount Olympus are an egoistic, quarrelsome lot, not to mention endowed with boundless libido. Many Indian counterparts are no better.
In recent times, myths seem to have vanished from Indian writing in English, too. Raja Rao made use of Puranic parallels in The Snake and the Rope; Shashi Tharoor had a great premise — which suffered a bit in the telling — in grafting The Mahabharata onto Indian politics with The Great Indian Novel; Vikram Chandra's first, Red Earth and Pouring Rain played with folklore. After that, however, we've only had to contend with Manil Suri's somewhat tepid The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. The exception, again, is genre and fantasy: Ashok Banker's retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for example, or Amish Tripathi's The Immortals of Meluha.
It's not that one doesn't come across fictional versions of heroic journeys and quests nowadays; it's simply that they ring hollow, being unwittingly unmoored from their origins. Myths are timeless for a reason: they represent what is unchanging about, and fascinating to, the human race. In the introductory volume of the Canongate series referred to earlier, Karen Armstrong writes, "Like a novel, opera or ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if?' " Reason enough for more writers to take a dip in the River Styx.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a writer with an advertising agency in Mumbai. His reviews are collected at Antiblurbs.