There seems to be a definite trend and popularity in myth retellings; to some extent, there always has been, but these past couple of years there appears to have been an increasing interest and boom in myth retellings being published. From Stephen Fry’s Mythos, Heroes and Troy; Natalie Haynes’ Children of Jocasta, A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar; plus of course Madeline Miller’s Circe and Song of Achilles which has been receiving a rise in attention recently during its 10 year anniversary.
All retellings aim to do something different, by trying to pull out a different aspect of the myth or using the myth in ways that highlight something that the author believes needs to be talked about. It is understandable, after a wealth of modern retellings by men not normally interested in telling women’s stories, that a lot of these retellings aim to change that with a focus on the women of mythology. However, it is important to note that whilst previous retellings trend towards male characters being the central focus, it can be argued that in the ancient world this was not the case. With playwrights such as Euripides and Sopholces with works like Euripides’ Medea and Sopholces’ Antigone show just two examples of works that not only take myth and center it on the woman/women of the myth but also gives them nuance. So whilst recent retellings focusing on the myth challenge the modern trend which may be ingrained and expected by the general population, it would be unfair to make the bold claim they are challenging the ancient work also.
With that being said, there are many female characters who have less time to showcase their character and their story than others. One such character is arguably Briseis from Homer’s Iliad. Briseis, as we are told in the epic, was taken by Achilles as a war prize ‘when he wasted Lyrnessus and the walls of Thebe, and laid low Mynes and Epistrophus, warriors that raged with the spear’ (Hom. Il. 2.690-695). When Agamemnon has to return his own war prize (Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses) he takes Briseis from Achilles; ‘I will myself come to your tent and take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, so that you will understand how much mightier I am than you’ (Hom. Il. 1.180-190). This results in Achilles refusing to fight for the Greeks and calling on his mother, the goddess Thetis, to help the war go badly for the Greeks so that they regret what they have done. Here, the epic shows her as little more than property, passed from one man to the other. It is not until Patrocolus’ death do we see her take any action and speak: “she had sight of Patroclus mangled with the sharp bronze, flung herself about him and shrieked aloud, and with her hands she tore her breast and tender neck and beautiful face” (Hom. Il. 19.280-290).
This is perhaps why Pat Barker chose to focus on her in her retelling of the myth, The Silence of The Girls, which follows Briseis from the sacking of her city to the aftermath of Achilles’ death. Pat Barker is no stranger to writing historical work with a backdrop of war; her previous books are set during both World War I and World War II, meaning she is familiar with writing work that unflinchingly examines the traumas of warfare. She makes no exception for this myth retelling either. The book begins:
“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles...How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’” - Pat Barker, The Silence of The Girls pg. 3
Straight away not only is the idolised, hero-worshipped idea of Achilles we have been accustomed to shattered, but Briseis’ brutally honest voice comes through. This is her story and, whilst it is so entangled with Achilles’ due to her circumstances, as her survival is subject to him, she will not mince her words. This beginning sets up what to expect from Pat Barker’s story, as it never shies away from the horror that these women who became war prizes endured whilst also never being needlessly graphic. Everything is described with a matter-of-fact tone. This is what life was like for these women. This was the reality. Yet, whilst eye-opening and at times emotionally hard to read, it’s a credit to Barker that she is able to write about these traumas impactfully but not in a way that comes across as insensitive. That being said, readers should be mindful when approaching this book, as the content could be potentially triggering due to the nature of the story being told. There are heavy themes including battle and murder depictions, sexual violence, abuse, slavery, death of children and babies, suicide, and PTSD depictions.
The book is mainly told from Briseis' point of view; however, there are some chapters from Achilles’ point of view. Achilles is an interesting character and arguably what draws us in is how, despite being the central character of the Iliad, he’s still so unknowable. Scholars still debate aspects of his character today. The chapters from his point of view capture this impersonality; they are told in the third person whilst Briseis’ are in the first person. There still seems to be this distance even when the story is being directed by him. The readers still don’t get to truly understand him or his motivations. At times this can be frustrating, but it helps you empathise with Briseis who also is trying to figure him out and to some, this might be a modern characterisation of Achilles that feels very much like the Homeric.
Unlike some recent retellings, this is not just reworking the myth. This book highlights an aspect of ancient warfare that is easily disregarded when reading Homer, where you are made to only concentrate on the deeds of men and their struggles. In the original epic, the women inside the walls of Troy get the most sympathy, not the ones in the camp with the Greeks. Thus, this version is an important, impactful retelling, not only for how it gives these women a voice but for how it will change the way you understand the ancient texts.
This year, the sequel came out: The Women of Troy. Again, the same trigger warnings from the first book need to be advised before going into this. When the book begins you are inside the Trojan horse and the beginning chapters narrate the sacking of Troy, which also reveal a pleasant surprise. This book has chapters in the point of view of Pyrrhus, also sometimes referred to in the ancient texts as Neoptolemus. He is Achilles’ son who joins the war after his father’s death. Pyrrhus is a character who is not mentioned in many modern retellings; he only gets included briefly in Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, so his inclusion here is exciting. Like his father in the first book, the chapters in his point of view are given in the third point of view giving a similar distance where you never truly get to understand him.
The Women of Troy follows the aftermath of the destruction of Troy. The Greeks find themselves unable to leave due to the winds not being right for them to sail, causing a tense and impatient atmosphere. Briseis, pregnant with Achilles’ baby and married to a Greek, now finds herself having to navigate her new circumstances. Her fellow women in the camp now see her as a Greek and she can no longer understand them, causing rifts and isolating Briseis. Meanwhile, Pyrrhus is dealing with the legacy of his father and the consequences of murdering Priam. Notable characters from the Iliad such as Helen, Cassandra, Andromache and Hecuba are also included in the book, all of them reacting differently to the trauma they have endured and are still enduring.
This book is not quite as strong as the first and, once finished, it does not feel like much has happened. This is due to most of the conflict that drives the plot consisting of social politics with a lot of talking between characters. However, it is still compassionate and humane whilst tackling heavy themes. It’s still a great read and worth recommending, if just for the choice of including Pyrrhus and seeing what Barker does with the character.
Homer. The Iliad. A.T. Murray (trans.). 1924. Harvard University Press; London
Barker, P. (2018) The Silence of the Girls. Penguin Random House: London
Barker, P (2021) The Women of Troy. Penguin Random House: London
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