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When to read a retelling: thoughts? November 10, 2009

Posted by Heather J in Reading Ideas.
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I love to read retellings or reimaginings of older stories.  One of my very favorite books is THE MISTS OF AVALON, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which tells the King Arthur story through the eyes of the incredible women around him.  However I don’t think I would have appreciated that book had I not been familiar with the story of King Arthur in the first place.  That is exactly what happened in my recent read of LAVINIA, by Ursula K. LeGuin; I wasn’t familiar enough with Virgil’s AENEID to understand and enjoy a book based on it.

I asked my challenge co-host Rebecca for her thoughts on this.  She doesn’t usually read retellings but she suggested that this might be like reading a book before seeing the movie based on that book, something that she definitely prefers to do.

So my questions to you are …

  • Do you prefer to read the original before reading the retelling?  Why or why not?
  • Are there any retellings you’d recommend that are so solid on their own that you don’t need any familiarity with the original story to appreciate them?
  • Is there anything else you’d like to share on this topic?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please chime in!

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1. Amateur Reader - November 10, 2009

When you say you already knew the King Arthur story, was that from reading the original? What is the original? Some pieces can be traced to specific works (Chretien de Troyes, especially). But almost all of Malory, for example, is based on other books.

And, frankly, I think you’re a lot better off getting to know the King Arthur legends through Marion Zimmer Bradley or T. H. White than diving into Malory.

2. Heather J. - November 10, 2009

Amateur Reader – To clarify, I’ve heard versions of the King Arthur story throughout my life so the characters and actions in the books I read were somewhat familiar to me even if they were portrayed differently in each version. In contract, I have very little experience with the story of THE AENAID so I really struggled with the context of LAVINIA.

Thanks for your thoughts on Malory – I’ll keep away from that one for sure. 🙂

3. Amy - November 10, 2009

I definitely prefer to read the original first. Although sometimes that has a bad effect on the retelling; I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time before reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and really thought the latter a poor substitute for Woolf’s book. Right now I’m reading Hamlet in preparation to read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Undiscovered Country, as I think both of those, if not strict retellings, owe a great deal to Hamlet.

4. Rebecca Reid - November 11, 2009

I think Amateur Reader makes a great point: sometimes knowing the story and/or general themes is a great place to begin too! Arabian Nights, Odyssey: they’ve become a part of our cultural consciousness.

I have enjoyed all the old classics I’ve read and I’m excited to try some of the new retellings too — especially for the old classics that I love so much!


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