A Thousand Ships
NOTE: I’m assuming a basic level of familiarity with Greek mythology. If the names and vocabulary are confusing, Google is your friend. Additionally, while “Hecabe” and “Athene” are more commonly romanized as “Hecuba” and “Athena,” I have adhered to Haynes’s spellings.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Sometimes I wonder if it was a mistake to read Circe before I read any of the myriad of would-be feminist retellings currently flooding the market. Certainly Circe set a standard of writing that I have not yet seen matched by anyone else, but it also added an extra layer to my disappointment when I read The Silence of the Girls (Pat Barker), Ariadne and Elektra (Jennifer Saint), and now A Thousand Ships. I did not go into these books praying for them to fail. I don’t hate-read the way I used to, because time is precious and I no longer have the patience to march myself through a book that I know I’ll hate. I have always loved Greek mythology, and I am dying to find another book that can hook me the way Circe and The Song of Achilles always do. Maybe it’s unfair that Circe set my expectations sky-high, but the sudden wealth of pseudo-revisionist myths, coupled with the lower quality of the writing and the pace at which publishers have been churning out retelling after retelling, is giving me the impression that all of these other writers are trying to become the next Madeline Miller.
On paper, A Thousand Ships sounds great. It claims to center the stories of the forgotten women of the Trojan War, from the survivors dragged from the wreckage of Troy to the Greek women who were left behind to the three petulant goddesses who started it all – or did they? – and I can sort of see it, or at least I can see the outline of its intentions before it lost sight of its goal. At the heart of the story is a Greek poet suffering from a tremendous case of writer’s block, which has led him to besiege Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, with demands for inspiration. Calliope irritably obliges, but forces him to write about the women instead of the men. (Not great that the whole purpose of this story is to educate a man, but okay, I guess. Let’s move on.) The poet – who is, in this conceit, the narrator of the rest of the book – begins with Creusa, wife of Aeneas, as she wakes in the middle of the night to find her city in flames. Unable to find her husband or her son, she flees her house but doesn’t get far before the narrator unceremoniously announces that she will be dead long before dawn. Her story cuts off there, and the poet moves on to the surviving Trojan women, who are led by Hecabe.
This is the story that forms the backbone of the book. Following the sack of Troy, Hecabe is given to Odysseus as a war prize, but is pleasantly surprised when he helps her avenge the murder of her youngest son. Her favorite daughter, Polyxena, is sacrificed as a gift to the dead Achilles; her least-favorite daughter, Cassandra, is sent to Mycenae with Agamemnon and is killed by his wife. Her daughter-in-law Andromache is claimed by Neoptolemus, the brutish son of Achilles, and later marries Cassandra’s twin brother when Neoptolemus is killed by Agamemnon’s son. As for Helen, the putative cause of the war, she gets exactly one chance to tell her side of the story before she is buried beneath the internalized misogyny that pervades the book. In a secondary storyline, the journey of Odysseus is related via a series of letters written by Penelope as a method of coping with her husband’s twenty-year absence. These grow increasingly bitter as Penelope receives report after report – from a bard, it should be noted, and not from any credible source – that Odysseus has been carousing with nymphs. Periodically the book checks in on the poet and his muse, and Calliope offers somewhat patronizing explanations of her thought process. These three threads are interspersed with brief stories that focus on other women, whether Trojan or Greek or Olympian. Even the three Fates are included, though God knows why when their chapter has absolutely fuck all to do with the rest of the book.
The book’s intentions are irreproachable, but it fails badly in the execution. I am puzzled by its general reception, which does rather make me wonder if its admirers only see it as a feminist masterpiece because they have been directed to do so by the cover blurb. Just because a book says it’s revising history – or, in this case, mythology – doesn’t mean that it’s going to do it well. In this particular case, Haynes appears to have confused an unpleasant personality with strength of character. This is a trend that cannot die fast enough to suit me, because she really goes out of her way to make Hecabe a bitter old bat. There are two instances in which the narrator makes a point of stating that Hecabe’s female underlings do not expect her to thank them for the small favors they perform, which is just as well because she doesn’t. She does, however, thank Odysseus, her enemy, a man who razed Troy around her ears, when he allows her to murder two children in exchange for one of the fifty or so that she lost. Is this supposed to be character development? Penelope’s chapters are equally unpleasant, as she grows angrier and more accusing with each letter while somehow always repeating the same grievances. While I can’t blame her for her frustration, neither do I have any special desire to read the unfiltered contents of her mind during her pseudo-widowhood. Nor do I have any patience for Calliope’s smug assertion that the women she showcases are heroic, which isn’t really supported by any of the stories she feeds to the poet.
This is the crux of my problem with this book: it fails to make its own point, or even to uphold its supposed principles. The women are not the center of this book; they merely become the new narrators of the same damn story. Creusa’s struggle to survive in a flaming city is intercut with endless reminiscences about her husband. Penelope writes almost exclusively about her husband’s adventures. Penthesilea, Laodamia, Chryseis and Briseis, Thetis, Oenone – we hear from them all, and from others I have not listed, but the story they tell is the story of Troy from a multitude of vantages, and it is still the story of the men. Even Oenone, whom I actually did like, spends most of her chapter – before she tells Paris to fuck off and die, of course – watching and narrating the Trojan War from a distance. I’m sorry, but it’s like Haynes isn’t even trying at this point. I don’t care about the war; I’ve read about it so many times. If this is truly supposed to be the story of the women, show me what Oenone does on her own. Show me her daily life without Paris. Show me how she takes care of herself and her son. Show me how she moves past her anger and her grief. For fuck’s sake, I don’t need to see her haunting her mountain, musing over the identity of each of the Very Important men fighting over Troy and weeping when they die.
I could maybe have accepted Haynes’s apparent need to tell the same story over and over and over again, but the trouble is that the women – by and large, and with the exception of Briseis and Chryseis – are not particularly supportive of each other. And I know I have said this before, but I am so tired of this idea that women need to tear each other down in order to pass as female. The general handling of the female characters is incredibly disappointing. Hecabe is a bitter, abusive crone whose solution to her daughter’s prophecy-related troubles is a smack to the face, even in a situation that calls for unity. Cassandra is scornfully described as “mewling.” Calliope states multiple times that she is sick of Helen and cannot bear her existence. I cannot overstate how much I loathe Helen’s treatment in this book. I am so tired of being told that Helen is either a brainwashed pawn or a conniving harlot. It’s 2023. Those cannot still be the only choices. And the thing is, Helen does tell a story in which she is neither brainwashed nor willingly adulterous, but both Hecabe and Calliope instantly dismiss her. Fine: Hecabe’s city was destroyed, her world completely uprooted. I can understand her need to use Helen as a scapegoat. But what about Calliope, who has no such excuse? Or Haynes, for that matter, who claims to want to support the women but apparently has no qualms about sneering at the ones she doesn’t like? I’m getting a real June vibe here, and that’s not good. There is nothing wrong with women disliking each other – in fact, it’s inevitable – but Calliope’s contempt for Helen is searing, and it’s so unnecessary. If the book is genuinely meant to uplift and empower women, it needs to empower every woman, not just the ones the author personally likes.
If there is one aspect of the book that shines, it is the chapters about the goddesses Eris, Hera, Aphrodite, and Athene as they struggle with exclusion (Eris) or fight over a golden apple (Hera, Aphrodite, and Athene). I am slightly inclined to include the bitchy catfight over the apple in my above complaints about the relationships between the female characters, but the writing is too good and the characterization too on-point, and, if we’re honest, this is probably exactly how it would’ve gone down if any of this were actual history. I almost died laughing at Zeus trying to run away from the angry goddesses, which is quite possibly the most accurate depiction of Zeus in modern literature. In her afterword, Haynes states that she had the most fun writing this chapter, and I believe it. The battle for the apple is the sole reason this book is not currently sitting in my unhaul box. Haynes knows the Olympians well, and she puts that knowledge to good use in one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read in my life. I also love the chapter narrated by Eris, the supremely forgetful goddess of strife, who is constantly causing chaos between the higher gods without ever seeming to realize it, or even just figuring out why nobody likes her. (Seriously, she’s adorable. I want to hug her.)
I wish the goddesses had been enough to placate me, but they are not. If Haynes ever gets it into her head to write a whole book about the Olympians, I will buy it at once, no questions asked. I could reread their chapters all day. The rest of the book is a tiresome disappointment. I could have done without Calliope and her demanding poet, who add nothing to the story. I do not like being told what to think, especially by such a biased narrator. I would have preferred it if Calliope had not made such an effort to direct the reader’s thinking, and if she could have seen her way clear to providing a chapter from Helen’s point of view. I would dearly have liked to have seen the narrative acknowledge that Helen is not actually at fault, considering the origins of the war – at least in this retelling – can be clearly traced to the goddess Themis, who proposes the war to Zeus for the purposes of a population cull. She even suggests that the catalyst for the war should be Helen’s abduction by a Trojan prince, but, since the narrative doesn’t like Helen, such an acknowledgment never materializes. I don’t know if this is because Haynes just really hates Helen, or if it’s because the original mythology doesn’t like her either. It would be a real pity if the latter were the case. Haynes had so much room to improvise, but it seems she chose to box herself in, and it just feels like such a waste.