Retelling the stories and reframing the characters in ancient myths and tragedies is as old as literature itself. Indeed, many of the most famous versions of the myths and plays are not the urtext edition, but are re-tellings themselves, and some of our most famous pieces of modern literature — James Joyce’s Ulysses first and foremost in my mind — continue the trend.
This hasn’t slowed down at all in the recent past as novelists, young and well seasoned, approach these masterworks and explore interesting new perspectives. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which looks at the story of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and her chorus of maids (who were hanged at the end of the epic poem), comes to mind. As does Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles, an intimate portrait of the love between Achilles and Patroclus, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Just earlier this year Miller’s second novel, Circe, which, well, reframes the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, was published. Last year Colm Tóibín published House of Names, his retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (itself a retelling); and Kamila Shamsie published Home Fire, and Natalie Haynes published Children of Jocasta, each a re-telling of Sophocles’ Antigone (which is, again, a retelling; and, by the way, Eurypides also wrote a play called Atigone at around the same time as Sophocles; it’s now lost, but we know that their approaches were very different).
These old stories are endlessly rich! I hope there are many more reworkings (and, of course, there will be), particularly if some of our finest writers drink from this endless font to explore humanity. And that’s how I feel about Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a startlingly powerful book that retells (or does it tell for the first time?) the story, from her own point of view (mostly), of Briseis, the other woman at the center of the battles of masculine will in the Iliad.
The Greeks waged war on the Trojans because, famously, Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, the Greek king of Sparta. Menelaus, with the help of his strong-willed brother Agamemnon, the Greek King of Mycenae, called many other Greek kings and armies to travel across the water and punish Troy for Paris’s humiliating act.
Homer’s Iliad focuses on one particular period late in this long war: the quarrel between Agamemnon and the most famous Greek warrior Achilles. What — well, whom — were they fighting over? Briseis, a former Trojan queen turned captive concubine when her own city was sacked by Achilles earlier in the war. This is where Barker begins The Silence of the Girls. Famous for her vivid Regeneration trilogy of novels set during World War I, Barker evokes the muses again and conveys the horrific, violent, and terrifying events that lead to Briseis’s capture. Here is how her books begins:
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him “the butcher.”
We are soon with Briseis, running to the citadel once the walls of her city are breached. There, with the other women and girls, she looks out the window and watches fathers and brothers and friends get massacred in the street. When it’s clearly hopeless and the Greeks are just cleaning up the streets of any living man or boy, when those Greeks start lustily glancing at the citadel, Briseis watches some of the women around her jump from the windows to avoid slavery.
While I’ve always known Briseis wasn’t always a slave, the pages of the Iliad don’t really give her a lot of life. Somehow we know she was a queen subsequently brought into slavery, but the prevailing story is that of Achilles, the hero, flawed hero, sure, but the hero nonetheless. The same man occupies the pages of The Silence of the Girls, but here his tale is subverted by an innocent woman’s rape and enslavement.
As the Greeks approach the citadel, Briseis looks around and sees that her situation in life is about to change entirely. She’s already seen her family and husband killed by Achilles and his myrmidons, but she recognizes further changes. These are encapsulated in a passage where she looks at Ismene. Ismene is Briseis’s husband’s concubine. Yes, Briseis acknowledges that she herself has slaves as she realizes she’s about to become a slave herself. She looks at Ismene, “who was four months pregnant with my husband’s child, pressing her hands hard into her stomach, trying to convince herself the pregnancy didn’t show,” and Briseis reflects:
In the past few days, I’d often seen her looking at me — Ismene, who’d once been so careful never to meet my eyes — and her expression had said, more clearly than any words: It’s your turn now. Let’s see how you like it. It hurt, that brash, unblinking stare. I came from a family where slaves were treated kindly and when my father fave me in marriage to Mynes, the kind, I carried on the tradition in my own home. I’d been kind to Ismene — or I thought I had, but perhaps no kindness was possible between owner and slave, only varying degrees of brutality? I looked across the room at Ismene and thought: Yes, you’re right. My turn now.
Not all of Briseis’s accounts of these times are clear. Importantly, Barker does not simply retell the events of the war; she gets into the psychological experience, richly imagined and rendered wonderfully, horribly. Briseis recognizes this uncomfortable thought: “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” And so, along with the loss of her family, Briseis has also lost her own identity, not just to others but also to herself. Barker presents this in the prose. We feel Briseis numbly, hazily passing the time, noting a part of her died when Achilles took her as his “prize of honour.”
I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have the perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out.
And so this former queen becomes something entirely different, “living in a bubble, no past, no future, only an endless repetition of now and now and now.”
These early chapters are very strong and set up the conflicts Briseis must navigate later in the story when she has to decide just how to survive. Does she try to run to Troy? Even if she succeeds, what will happen when the Trojan walls falls and she’s forced to relive her capture? Does she accept the kindness of some of the Greeks, like Patroclus, who, we know, isn’t long for this world? Does she allow herself to care at all for Achilles and use her relationship with him to regain some stability? And what when she finds herself at the center of the dispute between him and the crude, cruel, unspeakably vile Agamemnon, who takes her as his own to spite Achilles? As an aside, Barker’s portrayal of Agamemnon, a petty but powerful king who would kill his own daughter to bring about this war with Troy, is one of the most believable I’ve read. For all of his promises that he didn’t sleep with Briseis, I’ve never believed it in the other tellings. Here, though, Barker again understands the psychology of these brutal, selfish, prideful men well enough to know Agamemnon can say that he didn’t sleep with Briseis as a man does with his wife and be technically correct, while at the same time both hiding and projecting what that means he actually did to her. I think Barker handles all of this perfectly and in a way that I came away with new, feasible portraits of these events.
There was one aspect of The Silence of the Girls that I can’t quite get behind though. Throughout, Briseis, and through her Barker, is aware of whose story this is and whose it isn’t as it goes into history. Briseis says, as an example:
Because, make no mistake, this was his story — his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.
While Barker does a fantastic job making this untrue, giving us Briseis’s story in a way that feels real and true to history, Barker strangely abandons Briseis’s first-person narrative at times to focus on Achilles. In fact, as the book goes on and there is more and more drama between Achilles and the other men, Briseis disappears from the page with increased frequency. Is Barker showing how easy it is to lose this woman’s story? Or is she succumbing to the drama inherent in the men’s battle of wills? I kept hoping it was the former, that somehow the authorial act of abandoning Briseis would underscore and deepen the themes of the novel. In the end, though, I couldn’t help but think these portions of the book subverted those themes.
I don’t want it to sound like I think Barker dropped the ball and flubbed the whole book. This is a quibble given how much I value the book as a whole. It’s important, I think, and I hope many discover it and enrich their appreciation of this old story, which says so much about humanity, especially in a time when minority and historically oppressed groups are trying to reclaim their stories. Thanks to Barker, Briseis is more real than ever, and she’s concerned about what we think of this old mess:
What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.