Epic win! Why women are lining up to reboot the classics

Natalie Haynes, Pat Barker and Madeline Miller are the latest novelists to explore the Homeric epics from a female perspective – joining in a timely act of reinvention

At the centre of Natalie Haynes’s absorbing, fiercely feminist new novel A Thousand Ships, about the women caught up in the Trojan war, is Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Here, the goddess invoked at the start of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey has something to say about the story that is being told under her guidance:

There are so many ways of telling a war: the entire conflict can be encapsulated in just one incident. One man’s anger at the behaviour of another, say ... But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men.

“One man’s anger at the behaviour of another” is a way of summing up the plot of the Iliad: the wrath of Achilles, directed at the Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon. The quarrel between the two men, who are ostensibly on the same side, is about the apportioning of loot – predictably enough, a captured woman, Briseis – and the stakes are so high because Achilles is by far the better fighter. When Agamemnon insists on pulling rank and taking Briseis, Achilles withdraws from the conflict, and the Greek invaders of Troy are pushed to the verge of defeat. Eventually, after the death of his beloved companion Patroclus, Achilles enters the battle, and the poem culminates in his slaughtering of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior.

Haynes’s book is emphatically not this: it is, as Calliope’s intervention explains, the story of the shadowy women on the edges of Homer’s poem, who nonetheless – in Briseis’s case, in Helen of Troy’s case – drive the plot.

A Thousand Ships is one of a trio of recent novels by women that, to a greater or lesser degree, rewrite the Homeric epics from the point of view of female characters. Madeline Miller’s beguiling Circe has the witch from the Odyssey at its centre, while Pat Barker’s remarkable The Silence of the Girls retells the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis. Towards the end of Barker’s novel, Briseis ponders how the war will be remembered. “What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.”

They do now, in the midst of a fourth-wave feminist surge. They want to hear old stories told afresh, and they want to hear about women; and they want to do it because it might help us think about our own moment. There have been feminist rewritings of classical epic before now: for example, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia. But there seems a particularly urgency to these new novels – especially when the classics are also being invoked, perniciously, to underpin an insurgent, misogynist “alt-right”.

Haynes and Barker’s novels care deeply about “the enslavement of women and girls”; they also care deeply about what it means to be “heroic”. In the Iliad, Achilles is offered the choice of living a short life famously and gloriously, or a long life obscurely. He flirts with the latter, but chooses the former: fame, kleos, is the value that trumps all in the Iliad, and it is achieved by glory in battle. The Iliad hints at the enormous cost of kleos – most movingly through Hector’s wife Andromache, and her clear-eyed sense of what will become of her and her baby son when the Trojans lose the war. The novels compel us to look at that cost, not by a poignant glimpse to the side, as in the Iliad, but as their chief subject. As well they might: after all, slavery, massacres and rape remain real-world consequences of conflict and male aggression.

The writers choose different strategies. Barker turns the Iliad inside out like a glove, making Homer’s barely existent Briseis her breathing, feeling narrator. The novel is a study in creating a protagonist with almost no freedom of action – except those of her own thoughts. Barker does wonders with compression and expansion: the battles, the Iliad’s focus, are invisible to the enslaved women in the camp, and so exist for them only as corpses to dress and injuries to tend at the day’s end; on the other hand, the first 100 or so pages of her story slowly unpack the first 350 lines of Homer’s poem. And she surely draws on her research about the first world war (for her celebrated Regeneration trilogy) to summon up the textures, odours and sights of a camp, virtually a shanty-town, inhabited by thousands of soldiers for a decade.

Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the judgement of Paris is especially amusing.
Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the judgement of Paris is especially amusing. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Haynes, a classicist by training, ranges well beyond Homer, drawing on Virgil’s Aeneid, and Greek tragedy. Briseis is one of her characters, and so is Andromache – but Haynes’s Calliope is a restless muse, who denies us the certainty of focusing on one character, or one linear timeframe. Instead, she darts between the beginning, middle and end of the war, and between women’s voices. The stories of those ostensibly on the “winning side” are no less appalling than those of the defeated Trojans: the war brings horror to them all.

The overall effect of the book is like that of a tragic chorus – that undifferentiated mass of (often female) voices – stepping apart from each other, removing their masks, and revealing their individuality. But Haynes also has a strong strain of Ovidian lightness, especially when she turns to her goddesses, for whom nothing is important or interesting for long. Her retelling of the judgment of Paris is especially amusing. “Oh really? We’re doing this?” asks Athene, when her fellow goddess Aphrodite strips off during the course of their beauty competition. Barker’s sole divine character is Thetis, the sea-nymph mother of Achilles. She is not so much a character as a kind of darkening in the water, a bleak, oceanic mood.

What Barker and Haynes are doing is, in one way, radical: giving voice to the voiceless. The same might be said of Miller, whose clever, enchanting Circe also takes issue (via her narrator) with male poetic visions of female characters. Hearing herself described in song – a song that seems to bear a strong resemblance to the Odyssey itself – Circe says: “I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword … Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets.”

John William Waterhouse’s Sketch of Circe, 1911-14.
John William Waterhouse’s Sketch of Circe, 1911-14. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Yet the projects of all three of these writers also sit firmly in the classical tradition: that is, they creatively excavate existing texts to build bold new stories. That is precisely what (for example) Greek tragedians did: they composed round the edges of, and in the gaps between, the stories of Homer, inventing or elaborating prequels, sequels and “parallelquels” to the Iliad and the Odyssey. The iconoclastic Athenian playwright Euripides, who was himself writing during a particularly destructive and cruel war in the late fifth century BC, began the work of thinking about conflict’s effect on women in plays such as The Trojan Women and Hecuba.

Haynes also acknowledges a debt, in her treatment of her character Penelope, to Ovid’s work Heroines, a series of witty imaginary verse letters written by female literary characters, including Odysseus’s long-suffering wife. Haynes also has Penelope write letters to her husband – though hers, it must be said, are a notch more sarcastic than Ovid’s.

The surviving literature of antiquity was overwhelmingly written by men. The most obvious exception is the fragmentary, gorgeous body of work by Sappho, at least one of whose poems unravels the masculine values of war and reweaves them into the shape of her own erotics. (True beauty, she says, is not an army or a fleet, but the thing you love – and the proof of this is Helen of Troy, who reminds me of my own love, Anactoria, whose face I would rather see than all the chariots and soldiers of Lydia.) What these three feminist novels do, in their intriguing occupation of the gaps in classical storytelling, is suggest that there are other rules to live by than those offered by the ethical framework of the Greek hero. For the women and the slaves, for the unsung and the obscure, there will never be kleos, at least in the strict Homeric sense. But there are other ways to be remembered, and different stories to tell.

Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is published on 4 May. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker comes out in paperback on the same day. Circe by Madeline Miller is out in paperback.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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