Dash of the Titans: Classic Gods in 4 New Fantasy Novels


The chaotic irruption and intrusion of classical gods into modern life, as represented in works of fantasy, probably dates to the half-serious, half-jesting Victorian cult of neopaganism. In those repressed and upright times, the satyr figure of Pan assumed importance as a symbol of liberation, freedom, and reintegration with the natural world. The goat god’s presence in The Wind in the Willows is a prime example of this preoccupation. (Peter Green’s 1959 biography of the author of Willows, Kenneth Grahame, contains a fine survey of the Pan movement.)

In a similarly constrained era, that of Prohibition, Thorne Smith, of Topper fame, brought the Greek deities to contemporary New York City in his 1931 farce, Night Life of the Gods. A similar impulse surely motivated the stories in Don Marquis’s Chapters for the Orthodox (1934), one of which, “Miss Higginbotham Declines,” chronicled Jehovah’s fruitless search for a modern virgin to birth a new Savior. In 1939, editor John W. Campbell created Unknown magazine, laying the groundwork for what we call urban fantasy today. Lester del Rey, at the time a young writer and not yet the prestigious editor he would later become, contributed “The Pipes of Pan” to Unknown, in which once again the Head Satyr has to contend with the vicissitudes of the modern world.

The employment of gods from almost every historical pantheon became a standard gambit in fantasy literature with a contemporary setting. In 1962, Stan Lee co-opted the residents of Asgard to support the superhero antics of Thor. A decade later, it was the turn of the Christian religion to support and contest the excruciations of Ghost Rider. Of course, conventional horror fiction often posits the absolute reality of Christian metaphysics, with the Creator and Satan, angels and demons duking it out. One such superior pair of novels by James Blish, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment, can stand for the whole corpus.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods represents a recent high-water mark in this lineage. U.K. fantasist Tom Holt returns to this theme from time to time, as in Ye Gods! and Odds and Gods. And certainly, coming full circle to the origins of this motif, Rick Riordan’s bestselling, cinema-adapted YA series starring Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon and a mortal mother, would be easily grokked by any Victorian fanboy.

That the old gods still have some life in them, literarily speaking, anyhow, is attested to by their current manifestation in three new books.

Martin Millar’s newest novel, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, is a charming, lighthearted, yet surprisingly poignant romp concerning the nature of war and peace, art and ambition, love and duty. It does not precisely follow the pattern of our earlier examples in transporting entities from the past into our technological era. Rather, it overlays some modern sensibilities onto Classical times themselves, rather in the manner of the great comedy musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

It is the year 421 BC, in an Athens that has been at war with Sparta for a decade. Nonetheless, the raucous annual Dionysia festival is still underway. Aristophanes intends to stage his comedy Peace in the competition and claim first prize, after several years of being bested. But he is operating on a shoestring budget, dwarfed by inferior competitors with more munificent producers. The quality of the prop phalluses Aristophanes can afford is pathetic. His bevy of beauties consists of a few acne-marked male teens in drag. Meanwhile, the young wannabe poet Luxos is earnestly hectoring Aristophanes to be his mentor and sponsor, and allow him to declaim some verses prior to the performance. What’s a playwright to do other than soldier on and pray?

Invocation is essential to the equation. Loosed upon Athens by the city’s rivals is the malevolent goddess Laet, whose mere presence is entropic. Persuaded to help her namesake city, Athena recruits Bremusa, a dour and martial 800-year-old Amazon, and junior nymph Metris, who is the titular avatar of flowers. Unfortunately, the ability to spontaneously generate buttercups and daisies is not much of a weapon against nasty Laet. (Or is it?) Add in the complication that Metris becomes distracted by both a lust for Luxos and the sights of the cosmopolitan city (so different from her ruined temple), and the fate of Athens does not look good.

But of course, in the manner of all comedies, and befitting the legacy of Aristophanes himself, this is a story of pratfalls and mishaps, sacrifices in pursuit of peace.

Without letting his research dominate, Millar strikes an authentic tone in his portrayal of ancient Greece and its citizens, while layering in just enough anachronisms to amuse us. For instance, the courtesan Theodota turns out to be the real author of Lysistrata, although Aristophanes will ultimately get credit for it. But Theodota isn’t too concerned. “It’s only a first draft. . . . We could rewrite it together. I’d need final say, of course. And the heavy end of the box office.” With similar modern yet eternal turns of phrase, Millar drives gently home the equation between the eras.

Although the main thread of the story is certainly the funny and melodramatic tribulations of Aristophanes and the city, the subplot of Luxos and Metris steals the show. The nymph especially just lights up every page on which she appears. Naïve, enthusiastic, unflappable, happy in her lowly powers, she becomes an emblem of kindness and optimism, someone wiser than all the playwrights, poets and gods. That she gets to close out the book in a quietly ceremonial way is only fitting, and a mark of Millar’s own affinities.

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The temptation to create one’s own Bible, set of Gospels, or mythic Ur-text involving the origin, population, high deeds and destruction of the whole cosmos is catnip to some authors. Perhaps the first such instance in modern times is Lord Dunansy’s marvelous and lapidary The Gods of Pegāna from 1905. The next and most dominant landmark in this mode is the immense amount of work that Tolkien did in creating the mythopoeic backstory for Middle-Earth, on display in The Silmarillion and other posthumous volumes. Most epic fantasies, in fact, deem it de rigueur to provide a pantheon and mythology of invented gods, even if such an accessory is only window dressing for the main action.

Retelling an actual historical gospel is an allied mode. One can do it seriously, as in Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax, or humorously, as in Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal or Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Ashok Banker‘s reimagining of the Ramayana as a fantasy epic falls into this category as well.

Joanne M. Harris, whose novel Chocolat achieved great prominence as a film, is definitely a prankster in the Moore/Python camp with her new novel, The Gospel of Loki. Thanks to a beguiling portrayal of the Trickster God by Tom Hiddleston in several Marvel Comics−inspired movies, Loki has never had a higher public profile, and this book forms part of that groundswell. But Harris does not accept any off-the-shelf version of the adopted Asgardian, instead digging deep into the original myths before skewing and skewering them, almost as a twenty-first-century Mark Twain might. Her Loki, narrating his own story with a fair share of objectivity along with the braggadocio, emerges as a monkey-wrenching, amoral force of nature: Big Mike Fink crossed with Johnny Rotten. He is authentic and true to himself, even if that often means exile and disgrace, contravening his real hidden longings just to be part of the establishment that will never accept him.

Harris starts at the very Big Bang of the Norse universe, when all was fire and ice. Soon the Nine Worlds have crystallized, and Odin and Company set up housekeeping. But Asgard at this point is merely wooden huts on a hill. When Odin adopts Loki as his blood brother, things begin to get interesting.

As with Millar’s book, the modern sensibilities grafted onto the myths form a large part of the book’s pleasures. Loki’s son by Angrboda is Fenris, the giant wolf. But when not in wolf form, “Fenny” is “a teenage dirtbag.” A sullen, pimple-faced kid, “with thick fur on the palms of his hands. To be fair, Fenny was going through a bit of a rebellious phase, characterized by grunting, bad smells, obscene language, loud music in his rooms late at night, and a generally uncouth approach to anyone of the opposite sex.”

Harris manages to make her Miltonic antihero both contemptible and alluring, innocent and depraved, victim and aggressor. Loki refers to all magic as “glam,” and Harris has glam by the bushel.

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In her duology-to-date, Jo Walton has come as close to writing a Gene Wolfe novel as any mere mortal might, while still preserving and showcasing her own unique voice, especially some gender-centric concerns not often explored by the Grandmaster himself. The philosophical and ethical themes, the elegant yet straightforward prose, and the multivalent subtleties of Walton’s two novels can stand shoulder to shoulder with Wolfe’s Soldier series and Wizard Knight series, at the very least.

Walton’s initial premise in the series’ first book, The Just City, is one of those crazed chain-of-event MacGuffins that generate the best kind of science fiction. What if the Greek pantheon were real? And what if Pallas Athene decided to conduct a social experiment with some humans? Namely, to see if a select bunch of Plato worshipers from every era of human history could actually instantiate Plato’s utopian, albeit somewhat fruit-loopy Republic. And what if Apollo, desirous of participating, underwent rebirth into human form (with his mind and memories intact, but no supernatural powers) and joined the colony? If you follow along so far, you are in on the wild yet thought-provoking ride that ensues.

Athene’s choice for the experimental colony is the island of Santorini during the Bronze Age. Even the Goddess is constrained from interfering with the time stream too much (Walton honors science fictional tropes in this hybrid work, as well as fantastical ones). Santorini is the perfect site, because a giant eruption is soon scheduled that will wipe out evidence of the anomalous colony and inspire the legend of Atlantis. Athene imports a group of adults to be the Masters. Then, following Plato’s recipe, hundreds of ten-year-olds (one of them the disguised Apollo) are trucked in. Some advanced worker robots fulfill the slave class, allowing humans to focus on higher things. Let the creation of the perfect “philosopher-kings” from blank slates commence!

Walton’s use of the pan-millennial hodgepodge of protagonists — a handful historical, such as Sokrates [sic] himself — follows some great precedents, such as Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series and Kage Baker’s Company saga. But eventually, despite their differences, the population becomes entirely focused on the task at hand, and Walton is able to indulge in both the satisfying exploration of several representative figures (through alternating first-person narratives) and a close examination of idealism versus utilitarianism, individualism versus community, and the fascinating realm where such antithetical impulses blur together.

Walton walks a tightrope gracefully between endorsing and ridiculing this kind of social engineering. Scenes such as an earnest debate about the propriety of individual snacks bring to mind famous noble follies such as Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, along with every back-to-the-land 1970s communes and the more sinister work of B. F. Skinner.

The Philosopher Kings raises the curtain after an internal gap of twenty years. The colony has splintered, so that now there are five rival cities, with small-scale wars among them. Each group pursues the Platonic ideal in contrasting ways. For the original city, Remnant, the new generation is proving both more and less than anticipated.

In the back-story, Apollo, in his mortal form as Pytheas, has married Simmea, a pivotal character from The Just City, and fathered several children — halfling deities yet to be awakened — prominent among whom is his fifteen-year-old daughter, Arete, whose endearing voice will inform much of the text.

We open with an intensely dramatic scene whose consequences drive the rest of the narrative. Pytheas and his family, plus some assorted companions, take the ship Excellence (whose name is synonymous with “arete”) and head out into the wider Aegean, seeking knowledge and vengeance. This mini-odyssey forms the bulk of the tale, and on the voyage Arete and her sibs will awaken to divinity, lives will be lost, a curious form of Christianity will be encountered (provoking the good question, “How can you celebrate Easter before Yayzu is even born?), and even a kind of new wisdom will be earned.

Walton is very scrupulous about doing honor to the story arcs of all her people, whom she plainly loves, and with one giant leap forward — literally a deus ex machina — the climax of the book endows them all with something close to the justice and excellence they all sought. This novel of ideas is at once old-fashioned and cutting-edge. In other words, like Athene, Walton has culled the best from all eras and made a rousing tale therefrom.