Tag Archives: greek mythology

Review: A Thousand Ships

You guessed it: another Women’s Prize longlist review. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is the last book that I finished reading, so this is me caught up on reviews! And I did mostly like this one!

athousandshipsIn the novel, Greek muse Calliope brings the voices of women together to retell the story of the Trojan War from exclusively female perspectives. This includes everything from the origins of the war (the gods’ decisions to meddle with the order of things on earth, a squabble over a golden apple, and Helen leaving her husband to sail to Troy), to the aftermath (the fates of the conquered Trojans, husband warriors returning to their wives in Greece, and much-awaited vengeance), as well as everything in between.

“When the war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else. And victory had made the Greeks no kinder.”

The book is divided into 40-some chapters, each told from the perspective of a different woman connected to the Trojan War in some way. These vignettes are not presented in chronological order, but rather flow between related characters, plot points, or themes. I actually found this quite effective; it’s easy enough to keep track of the overall timeline at least in broad strokes- before, during, and after the war, and this structuring method also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the already-familiar plot. Most of the characters are given only one chapter each, just enough space to explain their roles. The language is also reminiscent of what can be found in the epic poetry already associated with these myths- it reads a bit like a translation from original Greek, which lends a sense of atmosphere and history.

Though I did enjoy the read from start to finish, I had a few specific hang-ups. The largest is that while A Thousand Ships aims to be a Trojan War story focused on women, I did ultimately find it to be the same male-focused tale, simply told from different mouths. In the book’s list of key characters, nearly as many men feature as do women. Though the women’s deaths and sufferings are highlighted, most of their tales still revolve around the famous men. These women tell of their husbands, their sons, their owners (in the case that they’ve been captured as slaves), etc. It would of course be unrealistic to expect that none of these women’s stories would include men at all, but I did wish the women would have been given a bit more space to stand firm on their own.

The clearest example of the male focus can be seen in Penelope, who recounts all of Odysseus’s trials on his ten year journey home (through letters addressed to him, nonetheless!); her exasperation and annoyance with him for leaving her alone so long is the only sense in which her own voice shines through what is essentially her husband’s story, though she is given more chapters than any other character.

“Who but you [Odysseus] would assume that the gods had nothing better to do than assist you with whatever impossible scheme you had embroiled yourself in? And who but you would be right?”

There’s also Helen, who is uniformly hated by the rest of the book’s women, which perhaps isn’t out of the question given her role in their suffering, but should have been explored more fully so as not to come across as victim- or slut-shaming. I actually thought her dialogue in response to the accusations against her was very interesting and went some way toward pointing out the complexities of her character and situation, but it is sparse and more coverage was needed. Helen is not given a perspective chapter.

In the end I think Haynes’s biggest mistake was not using these women’s perspectives to add anything new to the Trojan War narrative. I think a little creative license with events and motives (perhaps even to pad the story if not to change canon material) might have saved the book from continuing to place men at the center of this tale. As it is, A Thousand Ships may be a fair alternative to reading Homer, but anyone with working knowledge of Greek mythology is unlikely to find anything truly revelatory in these pages. It’s a wonderfully woven recap that relative newcomers to Greek mythology (and veterans who just never tire of hearing the same tales over and over) may appreciate, but as someone who’s read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Silence of the Girls, Circe, and The Song of Achilles all in the last two or three years, I found Haynes’s take a readable and adept account that brings absolutely nothing novel to an old story. Calliope (the muse) certainly tries to steer this narrative in a new direction, but being spoon fed the book’s feminist intents through a clear author mouthpiece does not have the same effect that more powerful female narratives would have provided.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she- all the Trojan women- should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.”

Where A Thousand Ships shines, in my opinion is it’s ability to demonstrate the far reaches of a devastating event such as war. Haynes is able to convey that the effects of a conflict like this spread far wider than the number of dead and injured, altering entire communities, including the victors. She acknowledges on the page some of the female horrors of ancient Greece that Homer doesn’t- the way women are appropriated as slaves and even as wives, against their will, the psychological affects of seeing their families and community members killed, their almost complete lack of agency. It is also a story that reminds the reader that there is more to every story than the winner’s tale of triumph.

“In any war, the victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can only rarely survive the peace.”

For the right reader this will be a fantastic experience. It’s not a story that requires prior knowledge, though part of the pleasure for me was recognizing familiar faces. If this book had been published before Miller’s and Barker’s recent retellings, if I had read it when I was first learning Greek mythology, I could have loved this book. It’s a perfectly fine narrative that could have stood a few changes but ultimately does nothing wrong. I just came to it at the wrong time in my reading life, and I suspect that most who’ve read the two Greek retellings on last year’s Women’s Prize longlist will end up feeling the same.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.  I have absolutely nothing against Haynes or this book, but hope not to see it shortlisted. I’m not in a hurry to search out more of this author’s work, but I wouldn’t consider it out of the question based on this experience.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Odyssey

I’ve had  a bind-up of The Iliad and The Odyssey on my currently-reading shelf for over a year, and I’ve finally reached the end of the book! I’ve recently set a goal for myself to complete bookish projects that I started oh so many moons ago, and the first objective is to clear off the books that’ve been hanging around on my currently-reading shelf for months. My focus for February was crossing Homer off of that list.

theiliadandtheodysseyAbout the book: After ten years of fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus sails for home along with the rest of the Argives. But in his journey, he angers Poseidon, who dooms Odysseus to ten years of hardship at sea while his family suffers in Ithaca, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Finally Athena decides it is time to help redirect his course, and in the last stretch of his travels Odysseus describes the troubles he’s encountered at sea. Ithaca faces its own troubles as a mass of “suitors” attempt to squander Odysseus’s estate in his absence, eliminate his son, and marry his wife.

“I have traveled much, and have had much to do with heroes, but I have never seen such another man as Odysseus.”

I’ve read long excerpts from The Odyssey both in high school and college, but I didn’t know how very much of The Odyssey I’d already read until I managed it cover to cover this month. I recognized at least 16 of the 24 chapters of this volume from my previous readings.

But through the familiar and the unfamiliar, I struggled far less with this book than I did with The Iliad. Since I’ve already complained about my dislike of this translation in my review of The Iliad, I won’t go into all of that again here. I’ll say only that the translator of my edition, Samuel Butler (whose introductions to these epic poems are dated in the 1890s), used a very literal translation style that transformed Homer’s epic poems into rather flat English prose.

Fortunately, despite Butler’s style, I found The Odyssey much more readable. There is far less repetition in this story than The Iliad, and fewer lists of names and lineages that hold little interest for the casual reader. Battle scenes are brief and contained, and further the plot of this book. Though The Iliad seems to me the more accomplished and perhaps more memorable of these ancient texts, The Odyssey was far more fun and engaging to read.

Odysseus is known as a very wise man who can trick others easily. For this reason, a plot centered around Odysseus makes for a story full of puzzles and deceit. He must scheme his way past the obstacles that the gods set before him. This is a rather episodic journey, but we spend much more time with these main characters than with those of The Iliad simply because there are fewer of import. But as in The Iliad, we still witness the gods’ manipulations in the lives of the mortals; stories from mythology (The Odyssey included) balance gods so well, in some cases using them to explain what many today would probably consider acts of fate or science (weather, illness, personal strengths and weaknesses) but also presenting them as characters with physical presence. Of course, mythologies are interesting not only because of the stories they tell on the surface, but for the glimpse into historical cultures that they afford. Though we may harbor different beliefs today, there is still a timeless human connection in these ancient stories that can be found in the artist’s efforts to moralize and explain.

“Men live but for a little season; if they are hard, and deal hardly, people wish them ill so long as they are alive, and speak contemptuously of them when they are dead, but he that is righteous and deals righteously, the people tell of his praise among all lands, and many shall call him blessed.”

It was also interesting for me to read The Odyssey after picking up CirceThe Iliad, and The Silence of the Girls all within the last year. I love classic retellings, but the first step to appreciating them is to familiarize oneself with the original text. I made myself finish The Iliad before picking up Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but I did let myself read Miller’s Circe before completing The Odyssey. She doesn’t see much page-time in The Odyssey, so I was glad to have Miller’s exploration of her character in mind as I went through that part of the classic. With The Iliad behind me also, I was more aware of the character and plot references related to the Trojan War that crop up in The Odyssey than I had been while reading stand-alone excerpts in the past. And after reading The Silence of the Girls, I was more aware of the women in this story, few though they are, and could more easily see the unspoken hardships that they faced.

“She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labor and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks.”

I think the order in which I read these related books improved my experience with The Odyssey, though they certainly aren’t mandatory prerequisites.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this story has survived so long, and will continue to do so. I’ll definitely want to reread both The Iliad and The Odyssey in other translations that are at least more reminiscent of the original poetic form; I’m sure that I could enjoy the actual reading process of both these stories more if I could find a style better suited to me.


The Literary Elephant