A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

book cover

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. – the opening of The Iliad by Homer
I’m not sure I could have made it more obvious, but he hasn’t understood at all. I’m not offering him the story of one woman during the Trojan War, I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. Well, most of them (I haven’t decided about Helen yet. She gets on my nerves.). I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter.

Calliope, Homer’s presumed muse, keeps trying to get him to tell the broader tale, not just the one about the men and their battles and intrigues. But he insists on a singular, male-oriented view of the Troy story (Ilios is Greek for Troy). That is the only one we have gotten, well, from him, anyway. Other classical writers have offered some different perspectives, Euripedes in particular.

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Natalie Haynes – Image from her site – photo credit: Dan Mersh

We have all read it, (you did do the assigned reading in school right?) or certainly at least heard about it. The Iliad, by Homer, is the most widely read epic poem ever. The action centers on the leaders and the combatants, with a healthy dose of less-than-divine gods and goddesses, and adventure aplenty. It is rather light, though, on the stories about the impact of this lengthy war on women. Whudduwe? Chopped livah?

So, Natalie Haynes offers a retelling of the story of Troy from the perspective of its female characters, the story she imagines Calliope might have been pressing on her reluctant client. And the Odyssey as well, as we trail Odysseus through some of his dodgy travails.

The drama of war is not always found on the battlefield. It’s in the build-up, the aftermath, the margins. Where the women are waiting. – Haynes – from The Observer article

Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

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Trojan Horse – image from ThoughtCo.com

Just like today, the lives of regular people in Greek mythology are made miserable by the feckless, selfish, ignorant actions of the people in charge. And those on high are not shy about using others, other gods, lower-level gods, demi-gods, and mere mortals to implement their dark desires. For example, Gaia, mother of Titans (take that, Daenerys) is maybe a bit more like Joan Crawford (Earth-Mommy dearest?) in this telling, or a very unhappy landlady. (banging on the ceiling with a broom handle?)

Mankind was just so impossibly heavy. There were so many of them and they showed no sign of halting their endless reproduction. Stop, she wanted to cry out, please stop. You cannot all fit on the space between the oceans…you must stop, so that I can rest beneath your ever-increasing weight.

Zeusy, Sweetie, can you help me out here? And what better way to take off a bit of excess earthly poundage than a lengthy and particularly bloody war. Sure, Gai, no prob. And thus, with the eager assistance of a cast of the greedy, prideful, bloodthirsty, short-sighted, dumb, and just plain foolish, we get a decade-long war, short on forward movement but long on casualties, and stories.

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Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy – by Evelyn De Morgan – from Wikimedia

We follow a cast of mostly female characters as they endure or succumb to the horrors of war, politics and religion. Hecabe, Priam’s widow is a central core among the captive wives and daughters of the defeated Trojans, holding the group together as they ponder and plan for their fates in the hands of their captors. They cope with their treatment by the Greek victors. Some names will be familiar. Others, less so. You have probably heard of Cassandra. And certainly you know of Hector, but not his widow Andromache. They face moral choices no less than their y-chromosome counterparts. When and how to resist, when and how to go along. Finding ways to seek justice, revenge, or freedom. Banding together. Even the hated Helen is given a turn. Their lives, and deaths are no less heroic, despite a lower body count.

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Penthesilea – image from Total War Saga: Troy

Non-Trojan women get a perspective as well. You may have heard of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, but maybe not of Penthesilea, an amazing Amazonian character, Xena, or Wonder Woman, sans the tech. Leading her force into battle, looking to take on Achilles himself. You go, girl. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, gets some recognition for the atrocities she has endured, not just the one for which she has received a dark reputation.

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Penelope – image from The Arts Desk – painting by John William Waterhouse

Penelope tells Odysseus’s story via letters, having heard of his doings from local bards, who clearly get great reception on their muse-links. So, Ody, the war’s over, dinner is getting cold, your son would like to meet you, what time do you think you’ll be home? There are several Penelope chapters, written as letters to her MIA hubs. Pretty funny stuff, looking at the adventures of Odysseus from the perspective of the ones left behind. Oh, so after you poked out the Polyphemus’s one eye and were sailing off into the distance, you felt it necessary to tell him your real name? Just what the hell is wrong with you? You knew that Poseidon was his father, right? Hope you enjoy that curse he dumped on you. Well, no wonder you got blown off course. How old are you?…Really, you took a side trip to Hades? What were you thinking? Shacked up with Circe for a year and that Orygian home-wrecker Calypso for seven FU@#ING YEARS!!! My patience is running a wee bit thin, husband. Her exasperation really comes through.

You were wedded to fame more than you were ever wedded to me. And certainly, your relationship with your own glory has been unceasing.

The men do not come off well, overall, Achilles is not just the greatest warrior who ever lived, but a feckless murder machine who sees no difference between taking on Trojan warriors on the battlefield and mowing down unarmed old men, women, and children from his horse. His bf, Patroclus, thinks a high body count is all that matters, regardless of type. Agamemnon, nominal leader of the Greek coalition army, is venal, pathetic, entitled and cowardly. Can he be impeached? Really, you are willing to slaughter one of your kids to get a fair wind for your ships just because some priest tells you so? Really? Dude, you deserve what you get.

What kind of man wore a bronze breastplate and a plumed helmet to return home? One who believed that his power was seated in his costume, she supposed. The red leather of his scabbard was very fine, studded with gold flecks. She did not recognize it, and realized this must be part of his share of the fabled wealth of Troy. To have killed her child for a decorated bit of animal skin. She could feel the contempt shaping her mouth into a sneer, and stopped herself. Now was not the time to lose control. That would happen later.

The gods are portrayed as their usual awful selves, which is no surprise. Power corrupts, and, apparently, makes you really stupid, too. While most of the women come to a bad end. This is not a spoiler, because you read the book, right? But some get in a few licks of their own, and a few even escape.

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Detail of painting The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet, in which she holds a copy of the Odyssey – image from Wikimedia

There are many lessons from The Iliad that still pertain thousands of years after its writing. Antenor telling those in charge that the Trojan horse might, just possibly, be a ploy, and Cassandra cursed with knowing what lies ahead but never being acknowledged might, just possibly, remind some of the Trump administration’s response to the Covid crisis. And a Trojan willing to open the gates for an invading horde might certainly resonate with corrupt American legislators offering tours and even directions to a Capitol-invading mob in 2021. The classics are classic for a reason

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Clytemnestra and Agamemnon – Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) – Image from Greek Legends and Myths

To see or hear Haynes speak is to be instantly charmed, and better, educated and entertained. She is a gifted lecturer, bringing to her talks all the effervescence, delight, and enthusiasm she clearly brings to her fiction. She is an amazing writer, bringing the ancients to life for us in the 21st century. And her decade-plus career as a stand-up comedian clearly informs her work. While not LOL-funny here, her portrayal of Penelope’s remarkable forbearance certainly has a sharp comedic edge. Overall, Haynes has given voice to a side of the Trojan War that has been much overlooked. A Thousand Ships deserves to get millions of readers. It’s smart, entertaining take on a classic story is a new classic, all its own.

A war does not ignore the lives of half the people it touches. So why do we?

Review posted – January 22, 2021

Publication dates
———- May 2nd 2019 by Mantle (UK)
———–January 26, 2021 – Harper (USA)

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and Instagram pages

Interviews
—–NPR – The Trojan Women — And Many More — Speak Up In ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Lulu Garcia-Navarro
—–Books on the Go – Ep 78: Interview with Natalie Haynes, ‘A Thousand Ships’ – with Anna Bailliekaras – audio – 36:43
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand up comedians who talk about why they got out
—–Salon London – In conversation with ‘the Nation’s Great Muse’: Natalie Haynes – video – 1:04:13
—–Harrogate Literature Festival – mostly on Pandora’s Jar rather than A Thousand Ships, but wonderfully entertaining, and some outstanding and surprising information about Helen
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand-up comedians who talk about why they got out

Items of Interest – by the author
—–Natalie Haynes: Troy Story – A. G. Leventis WCN Ancient Worlds Study Day 2019
You must watch this. You will not be sorry
—–Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics – BBC Radio 4 – A lecture series by Haynes – audio
—–The Observer – Helen of Troy: the Greek epics are not just about war – they’re about women
—–Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors
—–Troy Story – Heroes Gods and Amazons!

Items of Interest
—– Where Does the Phrase “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” Come From? By N.S. Gill
—–wiki on Calliope
—–wiki on Clytemnestra
—–Homer (no, wiseguy, not the one from The Simpsons) – The Iliad – full-text from Gutenberg

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

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