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The Trojan Women — And Many More — Speak Up In 'A Thousand Ships'

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes

Helen was "the face that launched a thousand ships" — the Spartan queen, seduced by the son of a Trojan king, leaving her husband to send Greek sailors and soldiers to retrieve her, and kicking off an epic and bloody war.

That classic tale has been told and re-told for generations — and there's now a new version with a twist: The stories of the women are the focus, not the stories of the men.

Natalie Haynes is the author of A Thousand Ships. She says that of the great tragedians who wrote about the war, Euripides got quite a lot right — and did center women in his plays. "But I don't think it's a question of getting things wrong, it's a question of, as time passes, we end up focusing on just a different bit of the story."


Interview Highlights

On the Odyssey and the Iliad

So Homer tells us in the Iliad — we think of it as the great Trojan War narrative, and it is — but actually it tells us about two months of the war, which lasts for 10 years. And that's the story that we have in the Odyssey, which is a much more expansive story, then we get very many more female characters. So much so that in the 19th century, one slightly impish suggestion was that a woman must have written the Odyssey because no man could have written all these plausible female characters. I can't imagine who they'd been reading that gave them that idea, but obviously I totally would agree.

But you know, what happens is that then in the fifth century B.C., when these stories are reinterpreted by the great dramatists, is that they realize, I think, that if you want drama, you need to come off the battlefield because the drama of the battlefield is quite limited in scope. You fight ... and somebody is going to live and somebody is going to die. And that happens brutally and frequently in the Iliad.

On the women we meet off the battlefield, who've lost husbands and sons and homes, and don't see the glory in war

There's nothing I would like more for the story of women displaced by war to not be relevant anymore. But, you know, unfortunately, it remains extremely relevant to us today.

In a way, kind of, why should you? I suppose I mean, one of the things that inspired me when I wrote this book wasn't any ancient text. It wasn't a vase, painting or a sculpture, a poem or anything else. It was a film that I saw at the Cannes Film Festival, extremely harrowing and very impressive documentary about restorative justice in Rwanda, where there had been, of course, an absolutely horrific genocide. What I looked at was how these women who had obviously survived the war insofar as they were still alive, but they had been brutalized in the waging of that war ... And they were then being asked essentially to live next door to the man who had killed their relatives and brutalized their bodies.

And all the way through this film, you know, years before I thought about writing A Thousand Ships, I remember thinking, I guess justice is one way of describing this. It doesn't look to me like these women are receiving any kind of justice. It looks like they're having to tolerate what they're given because there's no alternative. That theme ran through writing A Thousand Ships for me ... When the book came out, a journalist asked me, you know, why should classics be relevant? Why should this book be relevant? I was like, mate, there's nothing I would like more for the story of women displaced by war to not be relevant anymore. But, you know, unfortunately, it remains extremely relevant to us today.

On the women who narrate the book — Calliope, Penelope, the Amazon queen Penthesilea

When I had the idea for the book, I was walking home and I thought, you know, what would be really cool is to do the Trojan War from the perspectives of all the women in it, all the women whose lives are touched by it. So that would be the goddesses that cause it. That would be, you know, the Trojan women. That would be the Greek women. And then I thought, oh, no, wait, hang on — and then there's the Amazons who come to fight after the end of the action of the Iliad, the Amazons come to fight for Troy as well ... and then it just expanded and expanded — it was like, well wait, what about all the women in the Odyssey, oh, hang on. And then the list got bigger and bigger.

On being criticized for misappropriating the classics

There's no reason why women — who have pretty well always been half the world — shouldn't be shown in the stories that we've been telling ourselves for a couple of millennia.

Well, I mean, it's only a misappropriation of the classics if you don't think very much about classics, I would suggest. Obviously it was good enough for Euripides to focus on the stories of women. It was good enough for Ovid to focus on the stories of women in this precise conflict. And so it's it's quite anachronistic, really, to say, you know, "Why are you focusing on women? Nobody did that in the past." Well, they most certainly did.

So I would suggest that you go back and read another book. You know, you can't stop people who want to be angry at voices that haven't been heard, being heard for the first time. They see a loss of privilege as somehow being a loss of status. And the good news is that if you're furious with me for writing this version, there are literally thousands of books about the Trojan War you could read instead. And pretty well all of them will focus on men, so have a good time.

On what she hopes readers will take away

Oh, I hope they find a story that they didn't know, even if they thought they knew it. I hope they find a story that is new to them. There are — you have to really hunt through ancient literature to find more out about somebody like Penthesilea. You can read her story in Quintus Smyrnaeus's Fall of Troy, but not even very many classicists have read Quintus Smyrnaeus's Fall of Troy.
And I hope that means that you see a story that even if you knew beautifully well, that I hope it sheds some extra light. There's no reason why women — who have pretty well always been half the world — shouldn't be shown in the stories that we've been telling ourselves for a couple of millennia. So, you know, I hope it allows us to look at the story a little bit differently.

This story was edited for radio by Hiba Ahmad and Melissa Gray, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.