TPM’s Associate Publisher Jackie Wilhelm: Five Myths For the Feminist

Heracles Could Never
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Associate Publisher Jackie Wilhelm is up this month. Check out her list of “five myths for the feminist.

Sing Muse.

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I can’t quite remember when I first started reading the Greek myths, but as a life long lover of fairy tales and fables it felt like a natural transition. Some kind of moral code taught through cautionary stories on epic and grandiose scales. An age where heroes and gods walk side by side. It’s all fantastical and insane. 

AGAMEMNON: Oh immovable law of heaven! Oh my anguish, my relentless fate!

CLYTEMNESTRA: Yours? Mine. Hers. No relenting for any of us.

Aeschylus, The Oresteian Trilogy

Here are some of my favorite retellings with a feminist twist.

Daughters of Sparta by Clare Heywood

I picked up Heywood’s book on a whim, I had read Madeline Miller’s Circe, and the bookstore just so happened to have a mythology table set up. I devoured the book in a little over a day. The novel centers around the lives of sisters Clytemnestra and Helen as they grow into young women, into queens, and as they learn to navigate the men in their lives and fight to find their place in their respective worlds. It’s amazing to think I found Clytemnestra unrelatable reading the original myths — a woman who only ever was a good wife, a good queen, a good mother, and in return her husband sacrifices their eldest daughter… for good wind, for the glory of power and infamy.

In the original myths Clytemnestra aided by her lover, murdered her husband after he returned from a decade’s long war for revenge, only for her to then be murdered by her son soon thereafter. In Heywood’s recasting Clytemnestra and Helen both have more nuance, the murder — and even Helen’s decision to run off with Paris — makes more sense considering the state of their individual marriages over the course of the novel. Such is the power of good writing.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person.”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

The Iliad is a slog to get through and it’s been … years since I gave up getting through it. The myths themselves however are fascinating, but long paragraphs of the son of a man from this or that village in Greece are not. Neither is Homer’s very descriptive prose of the various deaths and injuries dealt during the war. I bought and read Pat Barker’s novel at the same time as Daughters of Sparta. Together they work to tell just about the same story as the Iliad, just not from the men’s point of view. (Little did I know The Women of Troy was a sequel to The Silence of The Girls.)

Stranded on the war-torn beaches of Troy, the Greeks once again are at the mercy of the winds, and the gods. Still, in the shadows of the sacked and burning ruins of the city, the survivors, women, are dealt their terrible fates. They are the spoils of war. Told from the perspective of Briseis, the former slave of Achiles, The Women of Troy deals in the traumatic aftermath of war. Readers are thrown into the seedy court-like drama of the Greek camps where there was once unity, now there is only feuding, and in the middle of all of it, women can only rely on one another to survive. 

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

In a similar vein to Barker’s novel, A Thousand Ships, my latest conquest, also deals with the Trojan War retold from the perspective of the women in the story. It’s not as if the playwrights of Ancient Greece didn’t portray the lives of these women, they did. But it’s something else entirely to read retellings of these stories from a modern feminist point of view. Where Barker’s novel is quiet and moody like the gray, foaming sea that taunts the Greeks, Haynes’ novel is haunting, and heartbreaking, giving voice to both well-known characters like Penelope, who writes letters to her long-awaited husband Odysseus and Oenone, the often forgotten wife of Paris.

Haynes writes as the voice of Calliope, “a war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?” Reading the stories of devastation out of Ukraine, A Thousand Ships and The Women of Troy took on new meaning for me. The world, it seems, is made and broken by those who seek glory, purpose, power, and we mere mortals, regular folk who just want to live our lives, are left to pick up the pieces and keep going and give thanks we are still somehow alive. 

“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”

Madeline Miller, Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller

Nothing really can top Miller’s Circe, a book that for once, doesn’t directly involve the Trojan war. Who’d have thought? A lesser god in the pantheon, and one of the many pit stops in the Odyssey, here the daughter of Helios, god of the sun shines (pun intended). Anything I write can’t really do it justice.

Miller’s novel is magical and it’s a genuine pleasure to watch this outcast amongst titans, gods and nymphs find her place in the world. Told entirely from Circe’s perspective the novel follows her life from the house of Helios where judgment is passed on Prometheus, to Crete and the birth of the Mintaur, to the island of Aeaea where she is exiled to live out her days after Zeus learns of her penchant for witchcraft. Circe’s vulnerability and timidness turns into wisdom and power (I’d love to turn some people into pigs, too, if given the chance), Miller’s lyrical storytelling brings her to life; it’s hard not to devour the entire book in one go. 

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

On the sunbaked island of Crete Jennifer Saint reimagines the story of Ariadne, princess of Crete. More than just the story of the Minotaur, this novel follows the lives of Ariadne and her sister Phaedra. Both looking for escape and adventure, their paths diverge when the eldest helps Theseus kill the monster at the center of the labyrinth. Told in alternating points of view like Daughters of Sparta this novel allows each woman a chance to shine outside of the men that center their myths. Rather than a hero on a noble quest, Theseus is vain — an ass looking for glory and leaving destruction and injustice in his wake, the gods, Dionysus in this novel, are fickle as always and childish in their pursuits. The original myths are just as much of a downer, but Saint provides more human and nuanced characters in Ariadne and Phaedra. They have their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions. Shocking! The ending is just as tragic as the original, but the journey is worth it.

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