Greek mythology has been one of awe and amusement to readers and non-readers alike since Homer’s works over two thousand years ago. The legendary Trojan War was sketched so precisely by Homer in his epic, Iliad, that it’s not a surprise a lot of people are convinced it actually happened. What makes a delectable war movie like 300 (2006) realistic, but not Troy (2004), is the absence of mythical gods and goddesses. 300 is based on the Battle of Thermopylae, as King Leonidas holds off nearly 100,000 to 150, 000 Persians with a trivial three hundred men in his arsenal. There’s no goddess of warfare Athena taking the side of one army of mortals and tipping the balance precariously in their favor. There’s no divinity nor blasphemy for there are no such gods or goddesses. That is where Troy comes in with its setting in an earth looked over by spiritual entities from the heavens. Greek mythology ranges a broad spectrum, from the almighty Zeus and Olympians, the Titans, and all the way down to sea nymphs and Nereids and naiads whose charm is significantly feebler.
Homer (c. 750 BC) is oft-considered the greatest bard of all time, and his unparalleled status was well established by the time of Classical Athens. He is thought to have been the composer of the Iliad and Odyssey. (Note that he didn’t write either of those works, since poetry, including epics, was only recited and transmitted orally and began being written down much later). Historians still cannot say for sure if it was Homer who single-handedly composed the epics. Regardless of whether Homer was a “he”, “she”, or “they”, the panache and repute of the Iliad and Odyssey are not to be diminished in any manner. There were writers such as Hesiod and Ovid active around Homer’s time as well who also contributed to the historical Greek tales.
As much as I’d like to go on a rant about Odysseus’s journey before, during and after the Trojan War as he experiences an extended adventurous voyage, as portrayed in the Odyssey which is in part a sequel to the Iliad, I’m afraid I must confine this article to only the former and its descendants, for the sake of War in Literature.
The Trojan War might be a mythical one, but it was just as breathtaking and audacious in its verve, clamor of the battlefield, and of course, the legacy of Achilles. The most famous version is of Achilles being invincible except for his heel, and achieving martyrdom as the arrow strikes him in the one part he’s vulnerable. However, in the earliest versions, Achilles is actually not invincible, just an extraordinarily gifted fighter, which is more credible. He only went on to slaughter Hector, the eldest son of the king of Troy, after Hector kills his beloved Patroclus. Once he is satisfied with avenging Patroclus’ death, Achilles allows Paris, the gracefully handsome son of Priam, and the whole reason of sparking the Trojan War by nabbing Helen, to let his arrow strike Achilles even though he could’ve saved himself.
This is the story narrated by The Song of Achilles writer Madeline Miller. She is an undoubtedly gifted storyteller. Her use of metaphors is splendid, and she has a strong grasp on proper diction and nuance. I may or may not be biased when it comes to her. (Read her books and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)
But aren’t you tired of the heroism and valiance of only men in Greek mythology? It’s broadly populated by males- be it gods, demigods or mortals. Barely a handful of women have their perspective exhibited in such tales.
Novelist Pat Barker is one of the few speakers. Her 2018 novel The Silence of the Girls recounts the events of the Iliad, chiefly from the point of view of Briseis. The book contradicts the literary tradition of sweeping women’s voices under the rug when it comes to historical tales. Some of the closing sequence, which describes the fate of Troy’s women and the sacrifice of Priam’s daughter at Achilles’ burial mound, is inspired from The Trojan Women by Euripides. What is most fetching about the book is that it doesn’t glamorise war or women’s sufferings in the hands of military occupation at all. It is intensely raw, and depicts reality for what it is. Men get slayed — fathers and brothers; and the women? The mothers and sisters are captured as “war prize” and brutally raped by whichever bRavE soldier claims them as reward. A most quoted excerpt from the book by reviewers is:
No longer an issue of decorum, now it’s about staying alive. “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son,” declares Priam when he prostrates himself before Achilles begging for Hector’s body. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” Briseis thinks bitterly, “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”
Several books by Esther Friesner also deals with the life of the female characters, including her Nobody’s Princess, and its sequel, Nobody’s Prize featuring Helen of Sparta, and subsequently of Troy, set in Helen’s lifetime, counting the Trojan War.
This is what modern day writers are doing that barely any tragedian or bard did millenniums ago- they are bringing to life the women in Greek mythology. They aren’t beings only for the pleasure and sexual release of men, rather thinking, feeling individuals with own dreams and hurts and aspirations.
Aside from the Trojan War, while we’re on the topic of modern retellings, how can we forget the extremely popular Camp Half-Blood Chronicles by Rick Riordan? Almost every one of us grew up with the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, if not books, then movies.
While the Iliad is indeed incomparable in its evocation, books written inspired from it make up for where it fell short, like the portrayal of women. What the latter also do is simplify the epic for the masses. Not all of us may have a taste for dramatic epics with cryptic vernacular, but we wouldn’t think twice when picking up a novel on the thrilling Trojan War.
Iliad was the provenance of the ten-year-long Trojan War, and relevant books of our era are its rightful descendants.
The writer, a cynic, is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.