No-one knows who Homer was and it is most unlikely that the epic poems called The Iliad and The Odyssey are the result of a single author. There is one line of thought that these epic poems were written by a single author and another that they are the result of many contributions and that “Homer” is in fact a tradition rather than the name of an individual.
Does it matter? Well yes it does matter – in fact I believe it matters a lot. Perhaps not the authorship but the ideology, the assumptions. Because we are our stories. We are what we believe. If Homeric is a tradition, then Natalie Haynes has just added a new voice which doesn’t exactly blow great holes in the original. Rather it fills an existing void.
Haynes book 1000 Ships is a feminist retelling of the epic poems of Homer, of the Trojan Wars. No longer voiceless or invisible, the story is told through the women, the daughters, brides, wives, sisters – by Haynes’ pen given shape and substance, flesh and blood, personalities, anger, suffering and courage of their own.
The Greeks and Trojans fought for over a decade – principally according to the myth so that Helen of Troy – the world’s most beautiful woman and wife of Menelaus of Sparta, can be retrieved from Paris himself the son of King Priam of Troy, who has stolen her away.
Despite the book’s title 1000 Ships, these stories are not about Helen of Troy. In fact, she has a minor part. Although the lines from which the title comes are famous ( I assumed they were Shakespeare. No. They are from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus written by the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe and published in 1604).
Was this the face that launch’d 1000 ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
It is amply worth noticing that Haynes in giving her book its title has removed references to Helen, leaving only the ships. If men go to war, she is saying, it is not just because of a woman however beautiful she may be. And don’t let yourself off the hook for all the killing and bloodshed by blaming her.
This conversation between Hecabe (mother of Paris) and Helen is key.
“The Trojan whore, is that what they’re calling you now? Hecabe asked.
“I would think so” Helen replied. They’ve never been a very imaginative group of people my husband’s soldiers.
The Greeks finally win the Trojan wars as most schoolchildren know – or used to – by trickery. They appear to sail away with their fleet but leave behind a giant wooden horse apparently as an offering. The wooden horse conceals Greek soldiers inside.
I found myself willing the Trojans not to take the wooden horse inside the city gates. I mean why would you even do that? But of course they do, and that is pretty much that. End of. It is at this point that Haynes starts her story.
At the opening of the book Troy is in flames. We watch the destruction of the city through the eyes of Creusa who is searching through the dense smoke and dark night for her husband and son. She will never find either. Soon after the sacking of the city. The surviving women of Troy – of whatever status – are lined up and parcelled out amongst their Greek conquerors to rape and enslaved futures. This is the bit that the bards don’t sing about.
“If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept the casualties of war are not just the ones who die.” So speaks Calliope (the poet’s muse).
But it is Penelope who is the star of this show. At least for me. Poor patient Penelope who sits at Ithaca and waits and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars. Meanwhile ten years pass! On the way back he gets very busy having to outwit the cyclops and the nymph Calypso who wants Odysseus for herself. Then there is as well a witch called Circe. Penelope hears of all this through bardic tales, there being no email. We in our turn only hear about this from Penelope’s increasingly ironic and irritated letters as she is exasperated by what sounds like the most ridiculous series of excuses ever invented by an adulterer.
“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas. Even I, expert in your ability to create trouble, think one set is probably sufficient for your story.”
I cannot say I loved this book unreservedly – there is a great cast of characters and I sometimes felt detached from them. But I did love its sometime irony and wit. Its humanity. The writing is clever, insightful and based on a mountain of classical knowledge. Like all the best ideas, it is obvious once someone else has thought of it. 1000 Ships is not only a feat of imagination which creates living personalities out of mere mythic stereotypes, but it is a paean to women everywhere who have been the uncounted survivors of war.
“The bards all sing of the bravery of heroes and the greatness of your deeds: it is one of the few elements of your story on which they all agree. But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind.”
Well now someone has. And it is a song which is much overdue.