By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #15 (Part One) – A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

January is all about looking back - and looking forward: I'm discussing recent retellings of the Trojan War. First up: A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes.

Did you know “January” named after the Latin god Janus? He is the god of beginnings, endings, time, and transitions. Usually he is depicted with two faces, one observing the past, and one the future. Inspired by this god, I will write all my January posts about three books that do exactly this: retelling an ancient story, namely the Iliad, but with a voice of the future. First up: Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships.

You must have heard of the Trojan War. It started with a beauty contest, lasted ten years, took the lives of many great warriors such as Ajax, Achilles, and Hector, and finally ended in fire – for some. Others were destined to travel for ten more years before finally reaching home. The Iliad is, above all else, a story about brave men and their unforgettable deeds. Natalie Haynes decided that her version would feature the voices of all the women who were affected by the same war. A Thousand Ships is the story of all these unseen, and unmentioned, an unremembered women.

“Sing to me, Muse.” In Ancient Greece, no poet could write a text without saying these words. They would invoke Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, who would then tell them her story, and they would write it down. This is also how A Thousand Ships starts. However, after two sentences it becomes clear that this is where the tradition ends: the muse is exasperated by the poet’s constant pleas, and is reluctant to help him. However, being Calliope, burdened with the task of aiding poets, she can’t do anything about it and has to do as he asks. It’s a strong and powerful feminist message, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book.

What follows is the stories of all the women who were, in some way or another, involved in the Trojan War. We hear about Creusa, the wife of Aeneas, who is seen as the founder of the Roman race, about Hecabe, the Queen of Troy, about Kassandra, who had the gift of foresight but was believed by no-one, about Helen, the most beautiful woman the world had ever seen, about the women who lost their husbands, and about the women who were forced to become slaves. They all have their own stories, and they all felt the grief that the war brought them. This novel shows that war, and indeed life and literature, is not solely the affair of men; it’s the women who are part of it, too.

Some of the women are just as they are described in the original text; loyal, brave, and proud. However, there are simply so many more of them of them in A Thousand Ships – and there’s so much more of them that we see. My favourite chapters are the letters written by Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who becomes increasingly annoyed by her husband’s apparently nonexistent desire to come home – it’s great to see this woman, famed for her patience and fidelity, finally be honest with her audience. A Thousand Ships shows us real women, instead of the ones that merely support their husbands.

While reading this book, I realised that I’m a terrible feminist. I want equality like everyone else, but I guess the differences between men and women are relatively small where I live. As a result, I don’t always feel the urgency to fight for my rights (does that make me lucky, or quite the opposite)? Natalie Haynes’s novel showed me that I have been so naive, about my own society as well as every civilization that preceded it. I have loved these Greek myths ever since I was a small girl, but I never really paid attention to the women in them. I was too busy cheering on the brave Hector, and weeping for him when he died, and being impressed by Odysseus, the clever one, or scared by Achilles’ speed and bloodlust. Now I know that women have always been just as important and interesting as the men – if not more. 

Was “the face that launched a thousand ships” not Helen’s face, a woman’s face? Was Paris not helpless when he had to choose between three powerful goddesses, all of whom wanted to be “the most beautiful”? And, come to think of it, was it not a woman, Gaia, the Earth herself, who set in motion all the events that led to the Trojan War? It’s time women get the recognition they deserve, and it’s books like A Thousand Ships that show us just how much work still needs to be done.

Up next: Stephen Fry’s very personal retelling Troy.

Have you read this book? Do you think feminist literature can change the world? Let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!

Up next: Stephen Fry’s very personal retelling Troy

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