Retellings of Ancient Tales.

Circe by Madeline Miller, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes and The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker.

Circe by Madeline Miller
Circe by Madeline Miller was the book that launched a thousand adventures for me


I read Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ a year ago and started me on a journey I never expected to find myself on. I’ve never truly enjoyed Greek mythology, it always struck me as disturbing and misogynistic. The world of gods, demi-gods, warriors and heroes never ended in anything other than tragedy and it seemed to me the worst of human behaviours without any redemption, just continuous cruelty. I remember learning about The Iliad and The Odyssey at school and being struck by the glorification of violence, the more brutal and savage the man the more heroic his character. The most striking thing however, was the silence of the women. Needless to say, classics was not a subject that interested me and Greek Myths and legends were books I avoided.

As a librarian I used to enjoy reading longlists for literary prizes, as inevitably there would be conversations/events/reading groups around these books. In 2011 I read Madeline Millers, “The Song of Achilles” and was instantly drawn into the ancient world she created. The story was about Achilles, who I knew as rageful, revengeful and brutal, from the Iliad, and Patroclus, who I remembered nothing about. Miller, tells a tale of friendship and love, and ignited a passion inside me for the ancient world I never imagined I’d have. Whilst her book was generally received well particularly amongst other writers, it was awarded The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, there were corners of the literary world that didn’t fall madly in love with it, citing problematic prose and cliched, bordering on soft porn, sexual encounters which diluted the seriousness with which a classic should be handled. Notably these criticisms were mainly from men.

Though I was very much in the camp of admirers of Millers first novel, it took me a while to pick up her second, “Circe”, her feminist slant on the Odyssey. The book starts in the court of Helios, the Sun God, and father to beautiful sea nymphs and Circe, the plain yellow eyed “dull as rock” daughter who hasn’t inherited the coveted voice of the God, but instead sounds like a mortal. Her affinity towards humankind grows as she witnesses the torture of Prometheus and soon after falls in love with a kindly fisherman, Glaucos. Realising that his human flesh suffers decay as the years pass, she uses her magic to turn him into a God. Not long after, he betrays her for the beautiful sea nymph Scylla. Broken hearted, and in true vengeful Greek Mythology spirit, she turns Scylla into a frightful monster with multiple heads and rows of sharp teeth. It is this act that gets our Sorceress exiled to the island of Aiaia. Here Circe continues to grow her magic and learn about the herbs, particularly pharmaka, the source of much of her power. Her peace is interrupted, brutally, on more than one occasion and it is here she meets Odysseus, and his band of men, who she goes on to guide home via meetings with Gods and other creatures equally menacing.

Whilst classical purist might again object to the retelling of this tale, and chiefly the feminist angle Miller employs to tell Circe’s story, I actually thought it worked wonderfully well. I was absorbed in the all the narratives and spent time looking up each of the characters comparing their original stories to that in this book. The portrayal of Circe in the Odyssey is actually infuriating, she’s a beautiful nymph who lures Odysseus into bed (what else did women do in ancient times, even powerful witches) and turns his men into pigs. She uses her womanly charms to distract our innocent hero from his journey home to his wife. She is supposed to represent the dangers of excessive pleasure and comfort, and by giving her a story, by giving her a voice, Miller succeeds in creating a character that is more than a footnote in a mans quest. She creates a heroine who is flawed and charming and someone who suffers at the hands of the patriarchy yet continues to strive and succeed against the odds.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is set around the battle of Troy, as the city falls to its Greek conquers. Only this time the story centres around the women. The main narrator is Calliope, the muse who presides over eloquence and epic poetry, as she guides the poet through the story. Other reoccurring voices are those of Penelope and the Trojan Women. The former writes letters to her absent husband Odysseus, awaiting his return while scrutinising his choices and how little concern he seems to show for her wellbeing while he is off being a hero, bringing home another mans wife. The Trojan Women, chiefly Heckabe, wife of the Trojan King Priam and mother of Hector, Paris, Cassandra and Polyxena amongst many others, and Andromache, wife of Hector who was killed by Achilles, await their fate as the Greeks loot their city, kill all the men and boys, including babies and divide up the remaining women. The book takes a panoramic view over the lives of a mix of women, from Goddesses to Queens to nymphs, Amazons, and priestesses. It begins with Creusa as Troy is falling to the Greeks, she desperately seeks to find her sons and husband. We then learn of Theano, who bargains with the Greeks to save her daughter. A chapter is devoted to the Amazonian queen Penthesilea, to friends Briseis and Chryseis, taken by Achillies and Agamemnon respectively and to Thetis, the mother of Achillies as she mourns her sons death.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, tells the story of the women in the Trojan War.

Like a great Greek tapestry Haynes continues to weave the lives of the women, many of whom are only footnotes in the original and creates a masterpiece of storytelling. We learn of Laodamia wife of Protesilaus, the first Greek to land in Troy and her grief as his body is returned to her. A chapter is also devoted to Iphigenia – daughter to Agamemnon – sacrificed by him at an alter she believes to be for her wedding to Achillies, afterall “Artemis had been affronted by something her father had done and now she demanded a sacrifice or the ships would not sail” There is also a Chapter devoted to the Goddesses Aphrodite, Hira and Athene. As they attend the wedding of Thetis and Peleus they come across a golden apple and begin to quarrel as to who owns it. Zeus picks Paris, a goat herder living in the mountains, but we know to be the son of Priam, to pick which of the three should get the golden apple. And so we are introduced to a possible beginning, a chance encounter, that set the wheels in motion to what was to become the ten year war. We also hear from Eris the Goddess of strife and discord, Themis goddess of wisdom and good counsel and Giya, the great mother, all of whom discuss how they can manage the overpopulation of mortals: plagues, floods, volcanoes and finally settling on war.

 Oenone, a mountain nymph and the first wife of Paris, tells the story of her husband, prophesied to bring the fall of Troy, and therefore banished from the kingdom and assumed dead. When he leaves Oenone is left alone with their son. With her gift of prophecy, she sees what happens on the battlefield and Paris’s eventual return to her albeit fatally wounded. Sisters, Polyxena the youngest child of Priam and Heckabe, and Cassandra, the priestess cursed by Apollo to utter true prophecies, but never to be believed both feature throughout the epic tale, and are also given their own chapters, as the first is sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles and the other taken away by Agamemnon.

The tone towards the end of the book shifts slightly as we hear from Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, waiting for her victorious husband to return home so she can exact her revenge for sacrificing their daughter. We hear again from Penelope, only this time she addresses her letter to the Goddess Athene, as her husband Odysseus has finally returned home. Andromache, after years of living with her capturer reflects on her life and the depths of her powerlessness. Even The Moirai, known as the Fates, are included in the conclusion of this epic tale as they spin the lives of mortals with their threads. The final word is given to Calliope “Sing, Muse, he said, and I have sung. I have sung of armies and I have sung of men. I have sung of gods and monsters; I have sung of stories and lies. I have sung of death and of life, of joy and of pain. I have sung of life after death. And I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold.”

A Thousand Ships is without any doubt an epic. Just like Homar’s Iliad is a foundational text on men and masculinity, I would argue Haynes work is about the sacrifices women make, on the battlefield like Penthesilea, but also off, with their hearts, minds and particularly their bodies. The courage and the story of the women left behind.

I eagerly hunted down a copy of Pat Barkers “The Silence of the Girls” and didn’t bother to read the synopsis. This would be my third delve into Greek Mythology, into The Iliad and the world of Troy I was becoming increasingly familiar with. I was a little worried I had reached my saturation point, particularly with Achilles, but nonetheless I wanted to read this retelling. I’m glad I did as it turned out to be a powerful and memorable.

The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls is the story of Briseis, captive of Achilles.

The book is divided into three parts and starts with the fall of Lyrnessus. Queen Briseis witnesses the fall of her city, hearing the chilling war calls of the great warrior before seeing him kill her husband and three brothers, from the roof of the Citadel where the women are hiding. The massacre is followed by the looting before the victors turn their attention to the women.  The slave women in the basement are the first to be dragged out, Briseis sees a woman raped repeated by a gang of men, cordially sharing a jug of wine. So desperate is one of the women in the tower she throws herself off it rather than be captured by the Greeks. Watching her city burn, Briseis is transported by her capturers onto ships, like cargo and over the sea into a new land, and eventually into the hut of the great warrior himself, Achilles.

Here she meets Achilles right-hand man, Patroclus, who welcomes Briseis and reassures her she is safe. The sea is almost a character in this story, and Briseis is drawn to it. Achilles mother, Thetis, is a sea goddess, so he too spends time in the sea. Briseis narrates her time at the camp, her time with Achilles but also her experiences with other women captured from Lyrnessus, including Hecamede, captive of King Nestor. Then one day a Priest arrives at the shore, bringing with him a great ransom in exchange for his daughter Chryseis, who has been awarded to King Agamemnon after the victory at Lyrnessus. Agamemnon, who sacrificed his own daughter in exchange for a fair wind for Troy, refuses the priest and threatens him with death if he returns. Soon after, the camp is overrun with rats and a heatwave and eventually a plague. Agamemnon is finally convinced that the only way to pacify Apollo, who has sent the plague and bad fortune to the camp according to the seer, Calchas, is to send Chryseis back to her father, but before doing so he insists he needs to take another prize, another woman, Briseis. Infuriated at this insult Achilles withdraws from the fighting.

The second part of the book starts with a change of narrator. Achilles ponders over his death, accepting “that’s what the tricky gods have promised him: everlasting glory in return for an early death under the walls of Troy” He recalls his childhood, his mother’s abandonment, and his friendship with Patroclus. Briseis continues to tell her story too, this time from Agamemnon’s quarters. Her main duties include pouring wine for his guests, allowing her to listen to the conversations in his court and witness his mood increasingly darkens over Achilles absence from the battlefield. More and more Greek fighters are falling due to their quarrel, over a woman albeit a prize. Briseis is the new Helen. Patroclus, Achilles childhood friend and most trusted companion, is the third narrator, and we hear his impassioned pleas with the warrior to join the fighting again.

The battle continues to go badly for the Greeks, without Achilles. Briseis works at the hospital and witnesses first-hand the horrors of the war. Nestor, Odysseus and Ajax, Achilles close ally, hold court with Agamemnon and plead with the king to make amends with the warrior. When the King finally agrees, his offer is rebuffed by the proud Achilles, who demands an apology more than the treasures and the promise of women. Realising that Achilles won’t be persuaded they turn their attention to Patroclus and the Myrmidons (Achilles fighters).  

Patroclus, after spending time at the hospital and speaking to the Kings Council convinces Achilles to allow him to wear his armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle. Achilles armour, said to be forged by the gods, would be enough to instil fear into the opposition and revive the flagging Greek forces. They agree on conditions, including avoiding Hector, and Patroclus, dressed as Achilles, leads his men into battle. They reach the gates of Troy where he is met by Hector who kills him, all while Achilles watches from afar. The loss of his best friend is the catalyst that leads Achilles back to battle, and to killing Hector, and thus the beginning of his own end, as prophesied.

The third part of the book starts with Achilles dragging Hectors body tied to his chariot into his stable yard. This is followed by Patroclus funeral which Briseis narrates and her move back to Achilles hut. The last part of the book focuses on Achilles grief and his character off the battlefield. “Nothing would have pleased me more than to be able to think of Achilles as a thug with no redeeming characteristics or grace of manner, but he was never that” narrates Briseis during his meeting with King Priam. The Trojan king arrives at the Greek warriors hut to plead for the return of his son, Hectors, body, a plea which Achilles heeds. Briseis, realises that this might be an opportunity for her too. She attempts an escape but then realises that Troy is no longer a safe place for her, the city would be pillaged, just as Lyrnessus was at the beginning of the book and so decides to stay with her captor.

The book ends with the death of Achilles. As with “A Thousand Ships” Polyxena is required as a sacrifice on his burial mound. In this version though Briseis and Hecamedes accompany the young princess. The women of the royal household of Troy now find themselves in the same hut Briseis was held in on the night she arrived. And we imagine the same torturous plight lies ahead for them.

The Silence of the Girls is a really interesting look at the lives of the women in a mans world. Though Pat Barker creates a slightly more palatable version of Achilles, he is still brutal and women in his orbit are little more than prizes or objects. Her depiction of Odysseus is probably one of my favourites. There are also lots of other women in this story, and although they don’t make up the main body of the book, they form an important coalition of support around Briseis, which I really appreciated, as a nod to female friendships. The book ends where “A Thousand Ships” begins, so in hindsight I think I should have read them in that order.

Even, maybe especially, those amongst us who enjoy the classics will appreciate these retellings for the fresh perspective and angle they take on the epic poems that are the foundational works of Greek literature. These works only add to the mystery and the lore of what came before and, in my opinion, make them more amenable to readers. I have spent many an hour down the rabbit hole of ancient worlds, making sense of the various family trees, time I don’t regret spending. Moreover, I’m excited to read other stories about these women, and look forward to the expansion of this genre in the years to come.


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