Featured image above: “Penelope at her tapestry loom with a handmaiden picking apples.” by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Mythic reinterpretations are a hot topic. Specifically, ‘feminist’ reinterpretations, which attempt to give a voice to the women of ancient tales who have, until now, largely been watching from the sidelines. The success of Circe (Madeleine Miller), The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy (Pat Barker), A Thousand Ships (Natalie Haynes) and Ariadne (Jennifer Saint) among others demonstrates the current appetite for such stories. We are ready, it seems, to hear something new.
But just how successfully have these myths been ‘reclaimed’? In one respect, it is refreshing simply to hear these old stories retold from a female perspective. To hear Circe’s voice bellow over that of Odysseus, or Ariadne speak for herself; to be addressed by the chorus of Trojan women. But does merely placing words in the mouth of a woman amount to a reclamation?
For Briseis, the narrator of Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, the answer is no. Barker’s novel does not shy away from the brutal treatment of women as a result of the Trojan War; Briseis watches a ‘woman raped repeatedly by a gang of men who were sharing a wine jug’, and gazes upon the corpse of Polyxena, sacrificed so that Greek men might return to their homeland: ‘the deep gash in her throat made her look as if she had two mouths, both silent. Silence becomes a woman’. Even after Achilles’ death, she acknowledges that it is his tale she has been playing a part in: ‘His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.’
Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships shifts between perspectives, encompassing all of the women embroiled in the Trojan War, but returning frequently to Calliope, the traditional muse of epic poetry, as her main narrator. Calliope bites at Homer for his reluctance to narrate the demise of women, lest he slip from his chosen genre: ‘Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it?’ She too dwells upon the pain endured by the various female characters, and throughout the book achieves her objective of making the ‘hidden women appear in plain sight’, as do all these authors who seek to bring their stories to light. But when those stories are still filled with the violence of war, of rape, of enforced childbearing, how helpful, indeed how ‘feminist’, are they for us as readers today?
As a young, female writer, these are issues that concern me directly. My work in progress is a collection of short stories, which also seeks to rehabilitate several of the women from Greek mythology. In this I have grappled not only with how to address the violence dealt out to these women whilst they are alive, but also with the fact that many of their stories end with suicide. The men who originally penned them were claiming to give them a voice. Written during the first century BCE, the most famous classical example is Ovid’s Heroides, a series of letter-poems, addressed from multiple women of Greco-Roman mythology to their respective male partners. Yet, because the endings of these women have overwhelmingly written by men, it is the male pen which therefore deals out such violence to them again and again. This violence is highly relevant in contemporary society, in which the string of murdered women in modern thrillers or crime dramas mirrors reality: on average, one woman is killed every three days by a man in the UK. Does repeatedly depicting the violence women face, even with the best of intentions, challenge or contribute to it?
My personal response has been to treat these myths as malleable, to reshape them into something which feels relevant to our modern world. Sometimes changing a story can draw attention to issues just as effectively as keeping it the same.
This is the power of ‘what if?’. What if Penelope grew bored of waiting, and decided to deal with the troublesome suitors herself? What if Canace did not hang herself from the rafters? What if Dido threw her memories of Aeneas onto that pyre instead of her own body? What if, what if, what if.
There is perhaps no right way to tackle the subject. In many ways, there is something more honest about the work of Pat Barker compared to the ‘softer’ approach of others; her novels may be bleak, but they are unafraid in their depiction of the realities faced by women in the ancient world. But I believe there has to be change, too. There has to be hope that if these women’s stories can be altered, their violent futures un-carved, then so can our own. That, after all, is the enduring allure of myth. That is the whole point of a retelling.
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls, (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)
Pat Barker, The Women of Troy, (Hamish Hamilton, 2021)
Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships, (Mantle, 2019)
Madeleine Miller, Circe, (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Jennifer Saint, Ariadne, (Wildfire, 2021)
Hazel Atkinson is a recent history graduate and writer, currently working on her first book of short stories: a re-interpretation of Greco-Roman myth and is currently represented by Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. She spends her days working in a bookshop and pottering around Edinburgh. You can find her on twitter @hazel_el_rose