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OPINION | ON BOOKS: Mythology gets update that pleases

by Philip Martin | February 21, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Natalie Haynes' "A Thousand Ships" (Harper, $27.99)

Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

In the past couple of weeks, the mail has delivered "Women's Liberation! Feminist Writings That Inspired a Revolution & Still Can," edited by Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore (Library of America, $39.95), a paperback re-issue of Dorothy Dinnerstein's classic 1976 work "The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangement and Human Malaise" (Other Press, $18.99) and "Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent" by Katherine Angel (Verso, $29.95).

Being in general agreement with Dinnerstein's axiom that it's easier for women than for men to see what's wrong with the world that men have run, I'm not sure I have the wherewithal (or courage) to write much more about these feminist titles than an announcement of their availability. I'm a lot more comfortable confronting Natalie Haynes' book club-ready novel "A Thousand Ships" (Harper, $27.99), which retells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the Trojan women.

This isn't exactly a new twist — previously Haynes, who enjoys a delightful public persona in the U.K. as both a popular writer and a comedian well-educated in the classics who hosts the BBC series "Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics" — re-calibrated the story of Oedipus with a focus on the accursed's mother/wife in her 2017 novel "The Children of Jocasta."

While her scholarship is such that she has won serious prizes in the field, her touch is light, and she manages to make the famous (if not always familiar) figures of antiquity seem like regular humans. "A Thousand Ships" — which was published in the U.K. in 2019, but thanks perhaps to the pandemic is coming out in the U.S. now — engages ancient mythology in a thoroughly modern way.

It feels breezy, but will also leave you with a genuine sense of characters who, in "Bulfinch's Mythology" and other anthologies, might present mostly as strange names. Here, characters such as Penthesilea — the Amazon who dedicated herself to defending the Trojan people out of grief for accidentally killing her fleet-footed sister Hippolyta — and the churlish and unworthy Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and a warrior of considerable skill whose envy of Achilles clouds his judgment, appear as genuine characters instead of dusty game pieces. If nothing else, Haynes has provided us with a useful cheaters' guide to the classics, though she's not entirely respectful of Homer's narration.

Her book opens with the muse Calliope becoming annoyed with the poet's wheedling demand for her to sing to him — which she won't do until he makes the proper sacrifice. Poets, she notes, think only of themselves; he hasn't considered the others out there begging for her help. "How much epic poetry does the world really need?" the muse muses.

Thankfully, Haynes' prose is not as fusty and littered with archaic Greek words as some of the duller translations of Homer's work are. (On the other hand, I like Alexander Pope's 18th-century translation, which you can see here: But you needn't be at all familiar with the source material to enjoy this novel (which actually feels more like a series of connected short stories, which, again, echoes Homer).

That's not to say Haynes doesn't shuffle things around. For example, in "The Iliad," Briseis, the beautiful wife of a prince of Lyrnessus captured by the Greeks, is treated as a kind of status symbol. Achilles claims her as a reward for his prowess in battle. But when Agamemnon loses his own concubine (Chryseis), he demands Achilles give Briseis to him, which turns the mighty warrior passive-aggressive and leaves him sulking in his tent.

In Haynes' retelling, Briseis is never Achilles' lover; instead he conspires to win her for love-struck Patroclus, whom she seems to like too, so long as he keeps her dead husband's name out of his mouth.

I'm not sure what I think about Haynes' coy treatment of the big (in some quarters, anyway) question of Achilles' sexuality. In the helpful list of characters she provides (there are more than 50), she identifies Patroclus as Achilles' "closest friend and, perhaps lover."

This is in line with Homer himself, who doesn't make the relationship explicit in the "Iliad," though he does, in Book 16, have Achilles wishing all the other soldiers, both Greek and Trojan, would die in battle so he and Patroclus could have Troy all to themselves. Some still call that inconclusive, though other ancient Greek works have no trouble portraying the pair as lovers, and Plato assumed they were.

Did I learn more about Greek mythology from "A Thousand Ships" than from years of leafing idly through my father's copy of "Bulfinch's Mythology"? Probably not, but I'll retain more from these stories, which illuminate the foibles of the men the Greeks made heroes.

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