A Thousand Ships: A Novel

Image of A Thousand Ships: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 26, 2021
Reviewed by: 

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, though billed as a novel, is a collection of vignettes and interrelated stories concerning various goddesses, nymphs, and mortal women connected in some way to the Trojan War.

The book is divided into sections dedicated to particular characters, while recurring sections, detail the plight of high-born Trojan women captured by the Greeks.

Rescuing women from the lacunae of history is almost a cottage industry for feminist writers these days, as in The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. However, as other readers have noted, women who had cameo roles in The Iliad and The Odyssey became the darlings of the later Greek playwrights, as in The Trojan Women, Hecuba, Andromache by Euripides. These women were well enough known in Elizabethan England that Shakespeare could reference Hecuba (Hecabe in Haynes) in Hamlet

It might be more accurate to say that we, in the 21st century, have forgotten a lot of ancient history. For reminding us, Haynes, a classicist who has hosted a BBC radio show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, is certainly to be thanked.

Of course, the Greek epics and Greek mythology have been a major source for writers over the centuries. Though the resetting of ancient tales and myths in other times and places (Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones) emphasizes their enduring relevance, fitting them into the tropes of the modern novel often diminishes their power.

This happens to some of Haynes’s characters, notably Cassandra, one of the most tragic characters in ancient Greek literature. Cursed by Apollo, Cassandra sees the future but is unable to get anyone to pay heed to her prophecies. Haynes turns her into a sort of troubled teenager whose visions become drawn out panic attacks, making her pathetic rather than tragic.

Nor does Athene as awkward tomboy confronting the prom queen Aphrodite (“Athene loathed standing next to Aphrodite who always made her feel like she was nothing but elbows and knees”) square with the view of Athena as one of the most powerful goddesses in the Greek pantheon. Haynes does write some good immortals: Eris, the goddess of strife, is wonderfully chaotic and confused, while the nymph Oenone is vengeful in a distant, other worldly way. 

Some of the human stories are more compelling than others. The opening story of Creusa, wife of Aeneas, is effective but more as a description of the burning of Troy than of Creusa herself. Then there is Iphigenia, happily preparing for what she thinks is her wedding day, when actually she is to be sacrificed to Artemis to provide wind for the Greek ships. Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, provides a plot summary of The Odyssey in a series of letters to her absent husband. Surely this is more a case of “journaling” since Odysseus definitely didn’t leave a forwarding address. If Penelope’s letters are heavy on backstory, they are often amusing. Here she has been listening to a bard describe Odysseus’s journey to the underworld:

“Epicasta, Leda, Phaedra, Ariadne. Even dead women can’t seem to leave you alone. But I could listen to no more by then, I’m afraid, and retired to my bed. To our bed.  Perhaps you remember it.”

Haynes is at her best when she lets her wry sense of humor come through, most obviously in the Calliope chapters. Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, is constantly irritated by the demands of the poet, presumably Homer:

“But I am not in the mood to be a Muse today. Perhaps he hasn’t thought of what it is like to be me . . . like all poets, he thinks only of himself . . . how many other men there are like him . . . all demanding my unwavering attention and support.  How much epic poetry does the world really need?”

Calliope’s comments are among the best things in the book and may also be the most feminist. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the ego of a male poet/writer?

Haynes doesn’t offer any particularly new insights into her heroines’ stories, nor into the stories of women in war. Sadly, we know that in a war, any war, women become chattel. They are captured, enslaved, raped, killed, and lose family, husbands, and children. This has been widely documented in fiction and nonfiction from the earliest epics to the present day.

Still, there is much to be learned from Haynes’s profound knowledge of her subject. For someone who knows the stories, it is a pleasure to revisit them. For anyone who hasn’t encountered them, it’s a good place to start.