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Natalie Haynes: defending gender equality is absolutely necessary. Photo/James Betts; background/Getty Images

A Thousand Ships: The silenced women of the Greek epics find their voice

In her retelling of the Iliad, English author and comedian Natalie Haynes joins a growing movement.

A Thousand Ships is the latest novel in a modern wave to retell Ancient Greek epics from an all-female perspective, and the best yet. It’s by English author Natalie Haynes, a former stand-up comedian who’s combined her classics scholarship (she studied at Cambridge) and her talents as an entertainer (she was part of the university’s famous Footlights drama club) into a career.

As a broadcaster, she’s heading to a fifth series of her BBC Radio 4 show Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics. As a writer, A Thousand Ships is her fourth classics-inspired book and third novel for grown-ups – she began with a non-fiction comparison of then-and-now, The Ancient Guide To Modern Life.

The new novel delivers a heartbreaking take on Homer’s Iliad, which comes stamped with Haynes’ bold humour. It convincingly illustrates that the women who survived the Trojan War were just as heroic as the men.

It’s also a work that classics novices could easily dive into. She realises not everyone has read the Iliad, but does reward classics nerds with “Easter eggs” – little gems of insider information dotted through the work to pay back those who have read the original epics.

We first meet Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who caters to a demanding, unnamed, blind bard. It’s clear to a classicist he must be Homer, in the midst of writing his Iliad. Why does he remain unnamed? You’d be falling into the trap of thinking he matters, says Haynes.

“It’s her poem, and she matters,” she says of Calliope. “How many times have you read a book or watched a film where a female character just disappears because someone’s lost interest in her? Is this just my expectation of how stories work, that we need to know what happens to the men and the women are disposable?” Calliope isn’t named in the Iliad or the Odyssey, “and so I thought I’d return the favour”, cackles Haynes. “Is this the game we’re playing? Then this is how we’re going to play it!”

Giving a voice to women who are traditionally minor, insignificant characters was Haynes’ objective, to show heroism “doesn’t belong to men any more than the tragic consequences of war belong to women. This is the women’s war.” Writing during the Me Too revelations of late 2017, this was particularly pertinent. Just as Haynes was giving voice to silenced female characters, women were making themselves heard in the real world, too.

“You know how crazy you go when you’ve been stuck at a desk for ages, and you go, ‘Am I writing this into existence?’” Haynes insists it really is necessary to write from the perspective of women “because we weren’t allowed to before. No one was interested in writing them before, because women had to write domestic books”.

A Thousand Ships follows such recent works as Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize-winning Circe and Pat Barker’s acclaimed “feminist Iliad” The Silence of the Girls.

Defending gender equality is absolutely necessary, says Haynes, who studied all-male classical texts in school. That’s not to say women’s voices didn’t exist in the classical world, but they remain largely ignored.

She says of the poet Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of poems from aggrieved heroines, “It’s one of the most sexist poets in the history of the ancient world writing the most extraordinary set of poems from the perspectives of different women. I think that’s quite a major work – how are you not taking this seriously? Are you all on drugs?”

When she studied the Iliad in school, chapters detailing important plot developments between the Trojan women were dismissed. “My A-level teacher used to describe it as a soap opera. Yeah, because it’s got women in it, because stuff happens, because there’s talking?”

Haynes defended gender equity in two shows in New Zealand last month, at WORD Christchurch and Verb Wellington. Troy Story, a tour of the Trojan War, focused on the untold stories of women in A Thousand Ships, and Honour Among Thebes traversed early Greek tragedies and comedies and was based on her earlier book The Children of Jocasta.

Haynes hopes that by reading about the classics, we learn more about the history. “I just want people to feel a little bit the same way as I do about these stories, which is that we’re so lucky to have them. They’re such a huge part of our collective history and any way you come to those stories is wonderful.”

She notes the classics are not for everyone, but if all readers take from her book is an adventure story, then she would consider that a victory.

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.