Parallel to External Retcon: taking a legend and revealing what 'really' happened by stripping all the fantastic elements out of it (or, at the very least, renders them Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane so that they do not have to be fantastic). This sometimes falls flat, because without the gods and magic, the audience might wonder what the point is. If King Arthur is just another warlord with no Lady of the Lake and no Merlin, he had better be made an interesting character in his own right.
Filmmakers sometimes forget this second part. In particular, the onus is on the writer to make the "imagined" historical events at least as interesting as whatever actually inspired the legend (and the actual events sometimes weren't).
If the historical period in which the original story is set is unfamiliar to audiences (and only touched on for verisimilitude by the writer for that reason), audiences may assume that the real-life historical milieu so lovingly depicted by the art department couldn't possibly have been the source for the story they know and love, and is part of the filmmaker's dastardly invention. This is complicated by the fact that Reality Is Unrealistic, not to mention less dramatic, and so, in the course of taking some of the more fantastic elements out, a certain amount of Hollywood History must be added in.
This technique is often used to give an adaptation a grittier and more realistic feel in situations when it is perceived that the fantastic elements in the traditional version might seem too whimsical or even silly to the intended audience.
This tends, as a rule, to be a retelling of the legend in its current form. As a consequence, it can explain the "real history" behind figures who obviously had no real history in the story, because they were introduced to the legend later - even centuries later. Frequent examples include Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and Alan-a-Dale in Robin Hood storiesnote , and Lancelot and Galahad in King Arthur talesnote .
Incidentally, the technical term for this technique is Euhemerism, named after a 4th-century BCE Greek, making the trope Older Than Feudalism. Sometimes coupled with a less-than-subtle Take That! against religion, particularly Anvilicious writers will give the characters anachronistically agnostic attitudes towards the gods.
Magical Realism can take the form of demythification in a more contemporary setting, or vice versa, especially if your Retroactive Realism involves one or two elements (often the most beloved elements) that are left purposefully ambiguous as to whether or not the supernatural is in play.
When a writer intentionally does this as a way of drawing out what historians "really think" inspired the legends, it is this trope. When a writer makes stuff up by way of Direct Line to the Author in order to rewrite an existing legend, it is an External Retcon, which is a sister trope.
When stripping away the fantastic happens within the same fictional universe that had the fantastic elements in the first place, that's Doing In the Wizard, which is a sister trope.
When a writer takes definitely historical accounts and reimagines what actually happened, it is Historical Fiction (or Alternate History if the changes are great enough). When a writer makes a subtle reference to actual history in a work of fiction, it is a Historical In-Joke.
Not to be confused with Defictionalization or Low Fantasy. See Historical Fantasy for the opposite, retelling history with fantastic elements - though in some cases the approaches can overlap, like putting King Arthur into a Dark Age Europe setting instead of the usual High Middle Ages but still including magic.
- In Vinland Saga Askeladd is the last remaining direct descendant of King Arthur, who was really a Roman-British general named Artorius. Said character was probably named after him as well, making his original full name "Lucius Artorius Castus". (Same as the King Arthur film, which it might have referenced.)
- In Don Rosa's The Once and Future Duck Gyro, Donald Duck and his nephews go back in time and runs into the (extremely unheroic) warlord Arturius Riothamas (King Arthur) and his bard Myrdin (Merlin). They also accidentally create the basis for the legends of the Holy Grail and Excalibur. The main characters manage to thwart Arturius and flee back to the future, but in the end, Myrdin decides to make the entire incident look like a great victory and create a heroic song about "King Arturius and his Narts of the Round Stable", promising that it will be a huge hit in the future. It is based on a genuine theory about the "historic" Arthur.
- Diaries of a Madman plays with this. Several human myths are actually true, including Merlin, whereas others such as legends surrounding several of the human gods are instead revealed to be powerful mages.
- King Arthur (2004) attempts (the keyword being: attempts) to present a historically accurate version of the Arthurian legends. No mean feat: the evidence is vague and contradictory. The film takes the Sarmatian Hypothesis and runs with it, stripping out all magical elements in the process.
- The film's version of Excalibur in the Stone: It was Arthur's father's sword, and it was used as his tombstone by his wife and son. It remained there until a surprise Woad attack forced young Arthur to take it and use it to fight, and he kept it afterwards. In other words, the "spell" keeping the sword in place until retrieved by its rightful owner was actually... just Arthur's legal ownership of it, never challenged by anyone else.
- First Knight is still technically a fantasy film with no attempt made to ground it in real places, but it also strips the Arthurian length down to a group of knights, their leader, the Big Bad and his horde, and a Love Triangle. No magical sword bestowed by some watery tart — or any other magic elements, like Merlin. Like at the end, Arthur isn't taken to mystic Avalon by fey women, he just gets a Viking Funeral.
- N.M. Browne's Warriors of Camlann (sequel to Warriors of Alvana). There are elements of magic, but it tries to address historically plausible explanations for Camelot and Arthur. Though good luck, at points, figuring out who is who with all the alternate naming.
- The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. Nimue, Morgan and Merlin's "magic" is a masterful mix of psychology, timing and chutzpah. The Unreliable Narrator is predisposed to believe in pagan magic, and believes every trick, Merlin and co. pull until Merlin explains in detail how he did it. Sometimes he still believes, despite the explanation. Similarly, pagan ceremonial magic is a mix of psychology, showmanship, trickery, and taking credit for natural occurrences.
- Andre Norton's novella "Pendragon: Artos, Son of Marius" - one of the quartet of stories in Dragon Magic - is set in post-Roman Britain. It ends with an explanation of the later legends of Arthur's death - he was secretly buried in such a way as to give his followers hope of his eventual return.
- Terry Pratchett has a subversion in the story "Once and Future"; of course Merlin isn't really a wizard, he's a time traveller! The stone holding the sword is an electromagnet. (It's also made clear that, even without magic, the Anachronism Stew of Arthurian Britain isn't any history Mervin's familiar with.)
- Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur tells the story of how Merlin (not a wizard) built up the legend of Arthur (not a hero, but a common warlord, and a fairly stupid one at that) using a web of deceit and the help of the book's young protagonist.
- Mary Stewart's The Merlin Trilogy, although Merlin is sorta magical and is teased to be the son of an incubus in the first book. After that, it's made pretty clear who his father is.
- Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset is another stripped-down Arthurian retelling (in fact, one of the first.) This one does contain much more historical plausibility and historical research than the movie King Arthur, though it is left deliberately ambiguous if the "curse" put on Artorius is supernatural or just psychological.
- Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court portrays the magic in the Arthurian legend as fraudsters (including the title character) fooling the ignorant. Also subverted, when said title character falls unconscious for 1500 years so that he can personally deliver the story to Twain.
- Elizabeth E. Wein's The Winter Prince deals with such characters of the Arthurian Legend as Artos (Arthur), Medraut (Mordred) and Queen Morgause (Morgaine) without any magic or magical swords at all. It is about people.
- Jack Whyte's Camulod series removed virtually every scrap of magic from the King Arthur tales - except the Made Of Unobtainium Excalibur and a few characters having psychic dreams.
- Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle series contains virtually no explicit magic, though Merlin is descended from Atlanteans (who are treated like Tolkien's Elves).
- Joan Wolf's The Road to Avalon has no magical elements except for Arthur and Morgan (portrayed as Arthur's friend) sharing a telepathic link. Merlin is a Roman-trained engineer.
- Courtway Jones' In the Shadow of the Oak King similarly strips out the magic except for making Arthur and his half-brother Pelleas telepaths. Merlin is a blacksmith and general wise man.
- Parke Godwin's Firelord. Followed by Beloved Exile, about Guinevere's later life at the End of an Age.
- The Sword and the Flame by Catherine Christian (published as The Pendragon in the US).
- Helen Hollick's Pendragon's Banner trilogy.
- Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey, told from the viewpoint of a stable boy.
- The Last Legion by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Made into a movie with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley.
- The Great Captains by Henry Treece. His version of Arthur and co. also appear in The Green Man, a retelling of Hamlet based on the original Danish legend.
- Excalibur! by Gil Kane and John Jakes.
- The Lovers by Kate Hawks, about Tristan and Isolde.
- Tony Hays wrote a detective/mystery series set in the Arthurian era, starting with The Killing Way. The lead character is an ex-soldier of Arthur's who sleuths for him after being handicapped in battle. While not actually the first Arthurian books to take the unusual whodunit angle, they're the first ones to be historical-styled. For instance, Merlin is suspected of murder, but it seems Saxon spies did it, and it gets complicated by the warlords of Britain trying to elect a new High King.
- Arthur of the Britons
- In Doctor Who, an alternate-universe Camelot appears to run on Magitek, and Merlin was actually the Sufficiently Advanced Alien Seventh Doctor. Merlin "living backwards" is revealed to be the Doctor's overuse of Retroactive Preparation, to the point that his final confrontation with Morgaine occurs before he ever travels to Camelot in the first place.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion presents the Dead Sea Scrolls as being left by the god-like alien who seeded Earth with life; this is the justification for the use of Biblical names and symbols used for the "Angels".
- The Man from Earth: While the movie has one possibly supernatural element on which the whole story is based, the way it explains the myth of Jesus is quite realistic. John's immortality is given a highly speculative natural explanation. The characters themselves discuss whether it would be scientifically plausible for a man to stop ageing and live indefinitely. They conclude that it's theoretically possible, if highly unlikely.
- The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. This is a borderline case, however, as more than one interpretation is offered for the Visions, and indeed implied for 'the Conscience'. Of course, since Joan of Arc was definitely a real person, The Messenger might also be accused of going the opposite route and adding fantastic elements (though this gets into a tricky theological debate).
- The mini-series Moses the Lawgiver stripped bare the story of Moses.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian, despite expectations, actually subverts this. It follows the whacky misadventures of a man that is repeatedly mistaken for a prophet in Roman Galilee, from his adoration by the Magi to his crucifixion by the Romans, and shows (accurately) that there were many self-proclaimed prophets in that time and place. Yet the movie does not make any comment on Jesus' nature, and he stays offscreen except for one scene early in the movie where he is seen addressing people from the top of a hill (The Sermon on the Mount). Despite this, many censorers considered the film blasphemous and it was denied a release in several countries for decades.
- Exodus: Gods and Kings has naturalistic explanations for at least some of the supernatural events in the story of Moses like the parting of the Red Sea being caused by the water receding before a tsunami. Though it "doesnt completely shy away from the miraculous".
- The Prince of Egypt is a partial Demythification of the Book of Exodus, keeping in most of the overtly fantastical elements—like the Burning Bush and the parting of the Red Sea—while reimagining some of the subtler fantastical elements that don't translate quite as well into modern times. To elaborate:
- Most translations of the Book of Exodus heavily imply that the Pharaoh's court magicians possessed some degree of genuine magical abilities, which allowed them to replicate all of Moses' miracles until the Ten Plagues left them too weak to do magic. For the story's original audience, the intended message was likely that there were many forms of magic in the world, but none of them were as powerful as God's divine miracles note . In the movie, Ramses' court magicians Hotep and Huy are shown to be simple illusionists who use sleight of hand and stagecraft to make people think they can perform miracles, while Moses' miracles are the real deal. Case in point: Moses very clearly transforms his staff into a snake and this is done in front of the audience both in- and out-of-universe, whereas Hotep and Huy disguise them transforming theirs with a blinding flash of light, obviously insinuating that they switched their staves for snakes when no one could see; Moses also turns his snake back into a staff after the Villain Song while Hotep and Huy don't—Moses' staff-turned-snake devoured the two fake ones.
- Many translations make reference to God "harden[ing] the Pharaoh's heart" to ensure that he doesn't free the Hebrews until the Ten Plagues have run their course (presumably to make an example of the Egyptians for future generations), implying that God uses His power to influence certain people's behavior and actions. The movie gives him a pretty convincing Freudian Excuse that makes his actions seem much more understandable. His father Pharaoh Seti is shown to be an emotionally abusive tyrant who constantly reminded his son that the fate of Egypt rested on his shoulders, and that any sign of weakness could bring his forefathers' dynasty crashing down ("One weak link can destroy a chain!"). As an adult, Ramses takes his advice to heart and refuses to free the Hebrews because he considers mercy to be a sign of weakness, only relenting when his firstborn son is killed by the Plagues.
- The Last Temptation of Christ portrays Satan and Jesus' divine origin as real, but offers a down-to-earth version of the latter and the Crucifixion. The unconventional-looking Willem Dafoe plays Jesus, he is shocked when he pulls off his first miracle, the Last Supper scene avoids a "Last Supper" Steal by involving a lot more people than the traditional thirteen (including women) and having them seat on the ground, and the Crucifixion scenes skew from traditional religious portrayals in favor of archaeology and non-religious accounts of how Roman crucifixions happened (for example, Jesus only carries the horizontal section to Golgotha, he is nailed by the wrists and also tied, and the two thiefs are nailed to dead trees). Jesus' cross looks like a traditional Latin cross by sheer accident, due to the wooden sign reading "Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews" being placed on top of it; if not for that, it would look like a 'T'.
- The Jefferson Bible was an attempt by no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, a deist who considered Jesus to be a great moral teacher but had a strong dislike for organized religion, to strip the Gospels of their more "fantastic" elements. Deism was a philosophy common in the 18th century that denied the existence of miracles and perceived God as a "cosmic watchmaker" who creates the laws of nature and carries out His will in accordance with them. It still exists but is much less popular and influential than at its peak, and is best recognized today for its influence on Unitarianism.
- Leo Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief does much the same as it tries to infer the life and teachings of Jesus without the myths that Tolstoy believed to be later applied to them. Tolstoy goes through with this more thoroughly than Jefferson however as he applies it not only to what passages he includes and excludes, but also to the entire translation process itself.
- Act of God, similar in style to The Holy Blood & the Holy Grail, raises the hypothesis that the Thera eruption was responsible for the Exodus story. From plagues to Pillar of Smoke By Day, Pillar of Fire by Night, the idea is an interesting one.
- In The Master and Margarita, the title character's masterpiece is a novel recounting the life of Pontius Pilate. Excerpts are given from the chapters concerning Pilate's encounter with Jesus, which depict the episode in this way: nothing unambiguously supernatural occurs, and Yeshua is characterized as a philosopher who speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven only as a metaphor and is misunderstood by his followers.
- Shulamith Hareven's The Miracle Hater is a mostly naturalistic retelling of Exodus, a historical depiction of a desert tribe who don't yet have the kind of religion that Judaism would eventually develop into.
- In Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain, some of the famous miracles Moses performs in The Bible while leading the Hebrews out of Egypt are really tricks he learned from his first trip into Midian: he crosses the Red Sea because of his knowledge of tides and strikes water from a stone by finding a spring he had once encountered. However, some of his miracles are still as fantastic as the biblical version, and from Moses's perspective there is no difference between them: they're all just applications of his vast knowledge of nature.
- Gospel of Afranius by the Russian author Kirill Yeskov presents the four canonical Gospels as honest but one-sided eyewitness accounts of "Operation Pisces" by the Roman secret service to undermine right-wing militia support in Judea. While not denying (or supporting) the claim of Jesus' (who is shown as an unwitting (?) victim of the Romans) divine nature, it explains most of his miracles with actions of the Double Reverse Quadruple Agent Judas and his posthumous appearances, with various impostors (one of whom went on to write the Q document).
- The Red Tent does this with the story of Dinah (daughter of Jacob) in the Old Testament. In this story, instead of Dinah being raped by the prince of Shechem, they had a consensual relationship that her brothers didn't approve of. Instead of Jacob's visions and name change (to Israel) being seen as from God, they are seen as a man slowly going crazy as his family falls apart.
- The whole "genre" of Ancient Astronauts theories concerns itself with explaining old myths and religious stories, but Abrahamic religions and the pagan mythologies of their original Semitic believers tend to steal the spotlight. To be specific, these stories are considered fanciful accounts of, like, totally mundane stuff like human-alien interaction. Nothing fantastic at all!
- King Jesus by Robert Graves, which mixes the canonical and non-canonical Christian gospels, presents Jesus not as the son of God but the secret grandson of Herod. Though he does perform miracles and is resurrected at the end.
- Orson Scott Card does this with the legend of Noah's ark and other great floods, including the legend of Atlantis, early in Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. (The short version is that the natural rising of the Indian Ocean overran a land bridge between the ocean and the Red Sea, and that was the flood that destroyed the nearby city - which at some point became identified with Atlantis - where Noah lived; Noah had seen the rising waters of the ocean and built his ship in order to escape the flood he predicted would come.)
- The Gospel according to Jesus Christ by José Saramago seems to start in this direction, by having Jesus being born from plain intercourse by Joseph and Mary, presenting the Angel that heralds his birth in an ambiguous manner (for example, he shows up later as one of three shepherds who adore him), having the Massacre of the Innocents limited to the village Jesus is staying in, attributing his ability to produce fish simply to good fishing skills, having him in love with Mary Magdalene, and having John the Baptist (who is unrelated to Jesus, but inspires him) be executed for criticizing Herod's marriage and not for claiming the coming of the Messiah. However, Herod learns of Jesus's birth from a dead prophet appearing to him in a dream (instead of the Magi), Jesus works for both the Angel (who seems to be really an Angel) and another shepherd who is clearly the Devil as a teenager, and as an adult, Jesus meets God. Who is evil. And tells Jesus he indeed created him, but as a tool to make all people in the world stop praying to other gods and make them pray only to himself.
- Jesus Christ Superstar although it doesn't debate Jesus' divinity, does question him from Judas' point of view, and seemingly does in the wizard with respect to physical miracles and angels incarnate. Rather than being made to look especially fallible, Jesus counsels his followers to be more sensible, but his best intentions are tragically unheeded by his flock.
- The Simpsons: The episode "Simpsons Bible Stories" had a segment parodying Exodus. In that segment, Moses (played by Milhouse) and Lisa performed the miracles using non-supernatural means such as when they dropped baskets of frogs on the Pharaoh and parted the sea by flushing toilets. The only part that wasn't demythified was the burning bush (read: God) that snitched on Bart.
- Ever After does this for the "Cinderella" fairytale, with the story in a somewhat more down to Earth environment devoid of external magic. The Cinderella character is Danielle, a French noblewoman who's reduced to servanthood by her stepmother and one of her stepsisters after her dad dies. The crystal slippers actually are based on the shoes that belong to Danielle's Missing Mom and the Pimped-Out Dress was made by humans, not by magic. There's no Fairy Godmother... but there is a Cool Old Guy and sorta Crazy Inventor Godfather, who's none other than Leonardo da Vinci. To go to the Ball, Danielle gets help from her other stepsister Jacqueline as well as the family servants. The Prince, Henry, is a flawed human being with both pros and cons, and he doesn't take the revelation about Danielle being a "commoner" well, so Leonardo has to give him a harsh pep talk before he goes and apologizes to her.
- The 1955 MGM musical The Glass Slipper is another down-to-earth "Cinderella". The normally magical elements are given practical explanations, though the overall style does still verge on the edge of Magical Realism.
- Rossini's opera La Cenerentola tells the story of Cinderella minus the magical elements. As in Ever After, the Fairy Godmother figure is a Cool Old Guy, in this case the prince's tutor Alidoro. The glass slippers are replaced by a pair of matching bracelets, and instead of having to leave the ball at midnight, Cinderella chooses to leave to make the prince search for her and test whether or not he'll accept her even in rags.
- In Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower's graphic novel series based on the The Iliad, the gods don't appear, and there's no evidence that they actually exist in the world of the adaptation. This is deliberate, as the afterword makes clear. Also, Helen of Troy is only fairly attractive, not beautiful (but she is very conscious about her image and spends a lot of time on her dressing and makeup; this, coupled with her exotic appeal and personality, is what makes all of Troy fall in love with her). Odysseus and Agamemnon decide to say she's the most beautiful woman in the world because the Hellene soldiers will fight more willingly than they would for the real reasons for the war, which are more complicated and less glamorous.
- The series is specifically set in the 12th century BC (the time the events that inspired Homer, who wrote around 800 BC, are believed to have happened) and there is great attention to detail to make architecture, dress, weapons, etc. be true to the period. So while the Homeric names, personalities and relations between characters are kept intact, these are cosmetically as far from any other adaptation of the Illiad, usually based on the Classical Greece of 500 BC or later, as they can be. The Achaeans are Mycenaean Greeks, and Troy is mostly Hittite with some leftover Minoan influences.
- Nymphs like Oenone and Tethys appear, but they are just wise women that engage in healing and divination. They are divided in orders that worship different gods; as a result, they call themselves "daughters" of said gods.
- The earlier sack of Troy by Heracles (aka Hercules) is narrated differently by a bitter Priam. Heracles is an Achaean warlord (though one so popular that he is treated "like a god" by his men) and he raids Troy after getting in "a dispute over a couple of horses" with Priam's father, Laomedon. Priam's sister Hesione is not saved from Human Sacrifice but taken as war bounty.
- The Judgement of Paris is a dream. A dream Paris claims to have had, anyway, during a long, seductive speech he makes to Helen.
- Cheiron, while called a centaur, is a big, hairy Mountain Man rather than a half man, half horse creature.
- Agamemnon does not kidnap the Oenotropae (goddesses of seed, wine and oil) to feed his army. He docks in Delos and uses its vast food reserves, deposited there as temple offers by the other Greeks. The comic's Oenotropae are in fact not godesses, but three priestesses that manage said offers, which is why their father Anius calls them the bringers of wealth to his island. Anius is addressed as son of a god - because he is a priest of Apollo.
- Helen is really the daughter of Tyndareus. Her mother believes Helen was hatched from an egg after she had intercourse with Zeus in the form of a swan because she is insane. However, in the world of the comic the story has already taken life of its own and translated into a rumor that Helen is of divine origin.
- The exceptions are the many prophecies of doom. Cassandra's, of course, are the most detailed and accurate, but true to Mythology, they are taken for incoherent ramblings and not believed.
- Most disturbing is how Cassandra got the gift of premonition. She believes Apollo appeared to her when she fell asleep at the temple as a child, but this is actually a distorted memory of her assault by a pedophile. He told her that nobody would believe her (about the incident), but she mistook it as a curse making her not being ever believed by anyone, about anything. This makes Cassandra's curse a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: She acts crazy because she fears no one will believe her, and people don't believe her because she acts crazy.
- Troy purposefully strips out the prominent supernatural elements of the original poems — or renders them ambiguous. The gods are never seen, and never act, despite their large roles as Physical Gods in Homers telling. Achilles is a Nay-Theist who pooh-poohs the gods at every turn. Hector, of all people, paraphrases Stalin: "How many battalions does the sun god command?" The priest of Apollo acts as an inverted Cassandra — he always gives exactly the wrong advice and is always believed. There are many other changes from the original plays unrelated to the trope.
- More ambiguously, Achilles's mother could be a goddess (well, one who really doesn't know the original version would think she is simply a seer rather than a goddess) or a strange but wise woman. However, Achilles scoffs when a child says that people believe that Achilles's mother is a goddess. His blasphemy, in general, tends to be followed by bad luck, and of course he is shot in both the heel and the chest (several times, in fact), but he removes the arrows on his chest before dying, and as a result his men find him dead with a single arrow stuck in his heel.
- In general, the film seems to interpret anything where the gods would be involved as a metaphor or exaggeration. This isn't too far from how some historians view it, with a common reading being that any kind of major feat or unlikely event would be credited to the gods - for instance, a passage going something like "Athena blocked a spear thrown at Achilles" could be read as "the spear thrown at Achilles miraculously missed him."
- Helen of Troy (1956) has shades of this too, but compared to the later Troy it's much more downplayed. The gods never appear in person but the characters all devoutly believe in them. Achilles's invulnerability is rumored, but one character remarks that his armor or luck is perhaps just that good, and arrows later do just bounce off his armor. He dies from the proverbial arrow in the heel after Paris prays that he may hit a weak spot, but it could be due to him falling from his chariot and hitting his head on a rock.
- Hercules (2014). A constant theme of the movie is legend vs reality. The adventures of Hercules shown in the film are purported to be the "truth behind the legend", with fantastic elements rationalised as hallucinations or fanciful inventions/exaggerations though some things like Amphiarus' visions are treated as real.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? changes the setting of The Odyssey to Mississippi during The Great Depression. Ulysses is a fugitive from prison, Penelope divorces him and tells their children he died, Polyphemus is a one-eyed criminal, Zeus is the state governor, Tiresias is a blind railroad worker with a gift for prophecy, and Homer is a blind radio station manager.
- David Gemmell's Troy series dispenses with the gods so prominent in the original plays.
- Dares Phryx (5th or 6th c. CE) and Dictys Cretensis (2nd or 3d c. CE) both wrote more-or-less realistic narratives of The Trojan War, with a strong sense that this is the later-corrupted "real story" (both authors' pseudonyms are names used in Homer — they're presented as eyewitness accounts by Trojan War veterans); e.g., in Dares, rather than using a giant wooden horse, the Greeks enter Troy through a gate decorated with a picture of a horse.
- The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, Mary Renault's novels about Theseus. Successful in that Renault does make Theseus a complex and compelling character in his own right. She also succeeds in capturing much of the spirit of the myth because her first person narrator, Theseus, believes in the gods and their influence in his life, even if none of the book's events are depicted as blatantly supernatural - modern readers would interpret them quite differently.
- Robert Graves
- Hercules My Shipmate retells the story of Jason and Argonauts. The gods are real for the characters but their physical reality is not clear.
- Homer's Daughter is based on Samuel Butler's theory that the Odyssey was written by a young woman, who based it on her own realistic experiences, and based the character of Nausicaa on herself.
- A footnote in House of Leaves, containing an idea that a character in the book thought up and then abandoned, explains the Minotaur as King Minos' deformed son — the body of a man, the head "of a bull"- who was born so ugly that Minos would publicly accuse his wife of bestiality rather than accept his son as an heir. The labyrinth was a prison so complex, with the Minotaur himself being "gentle and misunderstood," that the Athenians who were "fed" to the Minotaur died mostly of starvation. Guess what the author of that idea (and, hypothetically, King Minos) thinks of Theseus.
- Ursula K. LeGuin's novel Lavinia is a mostly realistic version of Vergil's "Aeneid," though it does add the supernatural touch of Lavinia having proleptic conversations with the spirit of Vergil. By the end, Lavinia has learned how to use people's perception of the supernatural to her advantage.
- Older Than Feudalism: There is a book called "On Incredible Tales" by one Palaephatus (an ancient Greek author). A nice reading, if you suffer from a really bad case of insomnia.
- C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The jealousy of Ungit (Venus) for Istra (Psyche)'s beauty is presented as the jealousy of the priest of Ungit for drawing away worshippers. Psyche's "marriage" to the god of the Grey Mountain (Cupid) is being chained to a tree on the side of a mountain as a sacrifice. Orual later finds Istra living on the mountainside, clearly insane and claiming to live in a palace that Orual cannot see. Turns out to be a subversion, as Orual later sees the god with her own eyes.
This trope is actually discussed within the story, as Greek philosophy is taking hold and some of the characters themselves are Euhemerists. A younger high priest of Ungit speculates that the stories of Ungit being both the mother and the lover of the God of the Grey Mountain are just allegorical ways of saying the earth (Ungit) creates the air, which in turn nourishes the earth with rain. The heroine silently wonders why they bother to wrap that up in a myth, if that's all the myth is saying.
- The short story "The Gardens of Tantalus" by Brian Stableford, collected in Classical Whodunnits, is a Demythification of the Lamia incident in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana, in which the "lamia" is a human, but metaphorically venomous, Femme Fatale, and Apollonius's own "magic" is a combination of natural philosophy and common sense. The story is supposedly written by a student of Apollonius, who is tired of mythological tales attaching themselves to a rationalist philosopher.
- A few stories in The Lost Books of the Odyssey present the story of The Odyssey as one put together by far more mundane sources, such as Odysseus as a wandering bard, who ended The Trojan War in a matter of months but spins out a far grander tale to get away from the boredom of kingship.
- Hallmark's miniseries Hercules (2005). The existence of the Gods made rather ambiguous (Hercules being fathered by an escaped prisoner of war with a lightning shaped scar), but they do throw in mythical creatures of Ancient Greece. It's heavily arbitrary on when to dismiss the fantastic. In addition, Hercules' Super Strength and fighting prowess is explained as a Charles Atlas Superpower brought on by Training from Hell.
- The BBC documentary Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend is actually a dramatized retelling of the Thera Eruption around 1628 BC, which is identified both as the reason for the decline of the Minoan civilization and the inspiration of the myth of Atlantis. The narrator - only one who ever says "Atlantis" - likens Plato's description of the Atlantean capital being built in concentric rings of land and water to Santorini (Thera)'s shape◊.
- Empire Earth zigzags this for its Greek campaign. The first level has a village chieftain named Hierakles leading his people to a new land where they build a temple and a city on top of a hill (the Acropolis), the Trojan War is fought without divine intervention, while Theseus was a leader of Athens who united the outlying city-states against Sparta and Thebes. The last (of very few) supernatural events is when Theseus ascends to become a god; this marks the campaign moving from being based on Greek myth to being based on history.
- A Total War Saga: TROY breathes this trope as part of its "truth behind the myth" approach to the Trojan War. All throughout the game are references to Greek Mythology conveyed through more realistic and plausible explanations that could have inspired them.
- The game depicts various mythical creatures in more mundane forms that could possibly be distorted by future audiences into their more recognizable fantastical forms. The Minotaur is a Cretan outlaw with a bull skull headdress and labrys harkening back to the old Minoan culture, the Cyclops is a muscular feral shepherd or pirate (the latter referencing how some Cyclopes, including Polyphemus, were sons of Poseidon) wearing a dwarf elephant skull (it is believed that said skulls were misinterpreted by the Greeks as belonging to one-eyed giants), the Centaurs are equestrian tribesmen who would have among the first instances of horsemen encountered in the Greek world, the Harpies are marauding bands of bandit women wearing feathered cloaks, and the Amazons are Scythian warrior women (excavations of Scythian kurgans have uncovered skeletons of warrior women).
- Several of the heroes in the game have subtle design influences that call back to their mythological inspirations. Achilles (and his Myrmidons) wears a helmet with cheek-guards resembling ant mandibles, a reference to the mythical origin of the Myrmidons being transformed from ants. Aeneas has several costume elements that harken toward his supposed Roman descendants, such as his cheek guards resembling a legionary's galea, his sash and cingulum, and his sword and shield resembling the iconic gladius and scutum.
- The iconic Trojan Horse is given three possible interpretations in game. The first are mundane siege towers with sail crests that resemble a horse's mane. The second is a horse-prowed covered boat that can be used to sneak troops into the city, which requires the services of Odysseus much like how he devised the plan for the original Trojan Horse. The third are earthquakes, which reference how Poseidon was the God of both Horses and Earthquakes; a symbolic horse rather than a physical construct.
European, Asian, American Mythology
- Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix series often features this, despite the title character being an immortal god-bird. Many characters in the earlier historical chapters are gods and other figures from Japanese Mythology re-imagined as ordinary humans and Strange Beings & Robe of Feathers imply that various mythical creatures are actually aliens or time travelers. Tezuka dispensed with this as time went on, however, with the final completed volume, Sun featuring such oddities as battles between Youkais and Bodhisattvas and retconning the alien angle out of the aforementioned Strange Beings (although Sun goes back and forth between the past and the (then) future of 2008, and it's entirely possible the part bits are an hallucination).
- Requiem from the Darkness features a strange subversion where a trio of outright supernatural beings are using their powers to fake or perpetuate myths of other supernatural beings. Through the series many myths and legends are examined and many of them are simply the trio using trickery to fool others. For example a sociopathic murderer is explained away as a tanuki, a shapeshifting badger dog, who is suffering from Shapeshifter Modelock.
- The Tale of Two Sisters, found across much of Europe, is usually some variant of this: Two sisters loved the same man, who was engaged to the younger. The older one arranged to have her drown so she would inherit the engagement. The body of the younger girl is found by a bard (who may mistake her for a swan) and uses her bones or hair to make a harp or fiddle. The bard is invited to play at the older one's wedding and brings along the instrument, but before the ceremony starts it sings out what happened in the girl's voice. However one Gaelic version removes the animated instrument by having the married sister compose and sing the song while the tide rises around her, which the other hears and later sings to her stepchildren, and the widow overhears her.
- The Dark Knight Trilogy strips the world of Batman of fantasy elements. Batman fights many sci-fi and supernatural characters in the source continuities. In this version, arch-foes like Ras Al Ghul and the Joker are given much less fantastic backstories. The Joker is given less backstory, period. And Ra's is revealed to be not one immortal man but the latest successor in the long line of leaders of the League of Shadows, all calling themselves Ra's al Ghul, and any fantastic abilities are chalked up to a hallucinogenic flower.
- Although it's basically Historical Fiction, and accurate in many respects (less so in others...), Kingdom of Heaven has tendencies towards this school of film-making with respect to the legends of the Crusades. However, the Director's Cut of the movie heavily implies that the Hospitaller is an angel. Also invoked when Balian throws a stone at some kind of naturally oily desert plant, causing a spark that makes it burn, and he says that's what Moses saw.
- Beowulf (2007) does this halfway through a heavy dose of Alternate Character Interpretation. Hrothgar, Beowulf and Wiglaf are stripped completely or almost completely of classic heroism and depicted instead as very flawed people, Grendel is a Tragic Monster who won't hurt Hrothgar because his mother forbid him to, Beowulf uses a chain and a door to rip Grendel's arm off instead of his bare hands, the killing of his mother is a flat out lie, and the epic as we know it is just a very distorted version of events that Beowulf tries to disown in his dying breath, without success. Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are still real and supernatural, however.
- Michael Crichton wrote The 13th Warrior (originally titled Eaters of the Dead) as a bet, after hearing a scholar friend claim that the story in Beowulf was "a bore". Crichton set out to prove that the story was not a bore if presented in a way that would resonate with modern audiences, just like the original resonated with early Medieval audiences. The result is a fake scholar book combining the story of Beowulf with Ahmed ibn Fadlan's historical travelogue of Eastern Europe in the 10th century. In this version, ibn Fadlan joins a Norse rescue mission to face a seemingly supernatural enemy in Denmark. Instead of Grendel, the enemy is a remnant tribe of cannibalistic Neanderthals, called the Wendol. Grendel's invulnerability to human weapons is a misunderstanding, because the Wendol always take their dead and wounded with them, leaving only Norse bodies behind after a battle. Grendel's arm is just one Wendol's arm, but it is a valuable trophy because it is the first incontestable evidence that the Wendol can be injured. Grendel's mother is replaced by the tribe's matriarch, and the snakes guarding her watery lair are replaced by Wendol camps around her lair and live snakes she keeps over her body. The dragon (or "fire-wyrm") is an optical illusion created by Wendol raiders carrying torches as they descend from their mountain lair.
- The movie zig-zags the trope, dabbling in some standard wise woman prophecy and mysticism. The book counterpart is much more ambiguous and features wise dwarves instead of a wise woman. The dwarves are normal Norse with dwarfism, but Bullywiff's men seek their advice because they believe dwarves to have supernatural powers. On the other hand, the movie also gets rid of the reveal about the Wendol's nature and makes them normal, if technologically backward humans. Maybe.
- Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King is a retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh, sans supernatural elements; the "scorpion people", for instance, are just a family with a skin condition.
- Baudolino by Umberto Eco does this with the "conspiracy" version of the various Grail and Templar legends surrounding the Crusades - the same material that Eco dealt with earlier in Foucault's Pendulum. The historical conspiracy is replaced by two petty criminals and forgers trying to make a profit by selling fake relics. Although it's clearly fiction, and the way that these two characters come up with nearly all the Dan Brown stuff on their own without planning is meant as a joke, the gist of it must be closer to reality than the organised, large-scale conspiracy version.
- Also, Baudolino himself is basically a medieval Münchhausen.
- Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, one of the major sources for Norse Mythology, uses this technique in the prologue. As a 13th century Christian, Snorri advanced the theory that the Norse gods were warriors who left Troy after it was destroyed, travelling to Northern Europe where their advanced knowledge meant they became chieftains. After they died, hero cults arose around their tombs, which eventually led to them being worshipped as gods. The same outlook is also presented in another work attributed to Snorri, "Ynglinga Saga", the first section of Heimskringla, but here, the Aesir are not identified with surviving Trojans, but an unrelated people whose home city Asgard was located somewhere in southern Russia or the Caucasus, and who migrated northwards to evade Roman imperialism (about a millennium after the destruction of Troy). As Heimskringla is about a decade younger than the Prose Edda, it seems Snorri eventually dismissed the identity of the Norse gods with the Trojans.
- One of the earliest Spanish accounts on Inca religion does something similar: portraying Viracocha as a conman who claimed to be a god in order to be worshipped and made king.
- In Poul Anderson's Time Patrol story "Brave To Be A King", Manse finds that the Moses in the Bulrushes legend is being told about Cyrus the Great in his lifetime, and learns that the actual Cyrus was exposed and killed, and the recovered one was actually the time traveler Manse was looking for. To keep history on track, they go back and intimidate the grandfather out of trying to kill Cyrus — so that the legend must have become attached to Cyrus at a later date.
- Timewyrm: Genesys featured the Doctor and Ace wandering into the middle of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Enkidu is a neanderthal, Gilgamesh is a perfectly human Boisterous Bruiser... and Utnapishtim is an alien starship captain, his flood-defying ark is a spacecraft, and the Scorpion Men are robots with lasers. Oh, and Ishtar is being impersonated by an alien criminal who Utnapishtim is trying to hunt down.
- Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash posits that Sumerian mythology and the Babel story are distorted retellings of real events surrounding the fragmentation of language.
- The Darth Bane trilogy does this to an extent internally within the Star Wars universe, though it is still a case of this and not Doing In the Wizard. Originally the story of the Battle of Ruusan and the rise of Darth Bane was told in a pair of comic books that had elements more in line with Lord of the Rings than Star Wars including what appeared to be sailing ships in space and bows and arrows alongside lightsabers that felt extremely out of place in Star Wars. This was fixed in the Drew Karpyshyn novels that changed those elements to be more in line with the movies as well as the game Knights of the Old Republic(that actually took place chronologically earlier), which is by no coincidence written by the same author. It also has Force powers that are between the absurd mythic elements of the comic books and the movies in terms of abilities. Within the novel Bane even comments about how unrealistic some of the extreme Force abilities appear.
- "Frost and Thunder" by Randall Garrett has the main character, Theodore, time-transported to ancient Scandanavia. He uses his pistol to help the locals defeat an enemy "tribe" of man-eating "giants" (implied to be rival hominids to homo sapiens as in Crichton's Eaters of the Dead) before being returned to the present. Afterwards, he muses that he was probably assumed to be a god — specifically, Thor, with his "hammer" that creates thunder, kills distant enemies, and returns to his hand as if it never left. Also, his gun is first mistaken for a hammer because he uses it to crack nuts.
- The Realm Of Albion, by Marcus Pitcaithly, demythifies elements of Mabinogion, other Celtic Mythology, and the late-medieval romances Amadis de Gaul and Perceforest.
- Dexter has pretty much dropped the demonic elements from the books, and made it a (relatively) more conventional series. Well, a conventional series with a serial killer protagonist. He does later refer to his "dark passenger" but only in a figurative sense, not an actual demon.
- Doctor Who does this occasionally. Almost any supernatural element in the show is explained as either alien or extradimensional. Even vampires turn out to be alien fish using perception filters to appear human. The "teeth" are the product of human subconscious trying to warn the person of a threat. (At least, some vampires are. Other vampires are actually blood-sucking, The Virus-spreading monsters, repelled by faith [a "psychic barrier"] or garlic [or "garil", which is space-garlic], and only killable by driving a stake through the heart. But they're still from space or the future, so that's okay.)
- Vikings uses Norse sagas that feature monsters and supernatural events as part of its source material, but gives the supernatural elements of them a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane approach (sometimes leaning farther into Unexplainably Magic with its prophecies). No one questions that Aslaug is the daughter of Sigurd the dragonslayer and Brynhild the Valkyrie, but whether they actually are her parents or even existed is left ambiguous. The show integrates the legendary inspirations with other historical sources, and often changes around both to fit its needs.
- The second season of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders has non-supernatural versions of a Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl note , a Caribbean zombie note and a yeti note .
- Primeval often "explains" legendary creatures and phenomena like dragons, mermaids, haunted houses or the Egyptian monster Ammit, as prehistoric (or future!) animals that passed through the time portals into historical times and were embellished by people.note
- While The X-Files most often veered into the supernatural, it would sometimes do the opposite and offer mundane explanations for supernatural Twice Told Tales. Maybe.
- "The Jersey Devil" threw away every aspect of the Jersey Devil mythology except the name and the New Jersey Pine Barrens location, recycling the titular monster as a maneating Bigfoot. Which was later revealed to be an anthropologically modern family of (white) cannibals living buttnaked in the woods. Maybe.
- "Dod Kalm" explained rapid aging and ghost ships as side effects of bacterian activity.
- "Quagmire" had Mulder and Scully come to investigate a series of deaths attributed to a Stock Ness Monster, only to discover that they were committed by an alligator. Maybe.