Sirens. Half formed creatures. Monsters. Goddesses. Slaves. Captors. Witches. Villains.
These are the words that first spring to mind when I think of women who are widely known in mythology. Sure, goddesses might seem like a complementary word. But when speaking of goddesses in mythology, they generally exist only for the male gaze or for the pleasure of men.
This notion really didn’t dawn on me until I recently discovered two books set in ancient times whose objective was to retell and reform these original ‘classic,’ tales to include a female voice.
Both The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and Circe. by Madeline Miller, seek to reclaim lost voices that history conveniently skips over. These books couldn’t have more different narrators, but they contain this common theme of shedding light on the female perspective within mythology.
This is a long post on feminism in mythology and how it is needed, so buckle up readers.
Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is told through the eyes of Bresis, a former queen turned concubine of Achilles. She tells the story of Greek women through what can be only described as a rape camp. The women existed for and at the pleasure of the men who held them captive. The were spoils of war, seen as possessions like the many tripods that are described throughout this book.
Bresis is aware of her position in the camp, and becomes numb to the horrific acts that transpire. She finds solace in some of her fellow women, in the kindness of Patrocles, and eventually, in the death of Achilles.
I gave The Silence of the Girls, a solid three stars. I found a couple of things in it slightly problematic for the feminist gaze. There are parts told from Achilles point of view, which I think makes it lose some of its feminist power.
Barker attempts to ‘humanize,’ Achilles and in turn excuses his behavior. It becomes apparent that he feels something for Bresis, although it is very clearly not love, which I could also appreciate. I feel if Barker turned this into a love story then the purpose of this novel would be lost entirely. So I was glad that it was more of an unspoken affection of sorts and not a love story.
There were also parts of Bresis’ thought process that felt a bit repetitive. But I wonder if it was done to give off the effect of someone in denial who was coming to terms with their traumatic reality. If that was a desired effect then I think it fits in well with the story.
This is definitely a heavy read that touches your heart, and makes you wish more stories like this existed. My favorite passage is near the end, and I will leave you for you here.
“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 softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”
I thought this was fitting given how we tend to try and overlook certain parts of history. Even the film Troy sets to create a love story between Achilles and Bresis. The Silence of the Girls deconstructs the Hollywood (and probably most historically inaccurate) version, and inserts the painful and probably more truthful version of history that is needed.
Which brings me to Circe.
What is there left to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I admit at being late to the party on this one since it came out in April of this year, and I am now just getting to it. But I felt this read needed to follow The Silence of the Girls. I needed to immerse myself in mythology that handled the feminist gaze.
And in reading both of these books so closely together, I can say that I wasn’t disappointed. Circe was another beautifully written story with exquisite and thoughtful language.
You feel the distance between Circe and her family. Where they are vengeful and cruel, she seeks to be benevolent and kind. This stark contrast differs greatly from how we view Circe in her own novel than in classic works like The Odyssey.
My recollection of Circe from my brief education of Greek Mythology is that she is a vengeful witch. She turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, and he manages to outwit her and escape the otherwise deserted island she inhabits. She is just a minor character in the story about a great hero. And in Circe, Miller turns this idea on its head, forcing Odysseus’ into that role, and giving Circe the depth she deserves.
The retelling or unveiling of Circe’s character that we receive makes everything we know about her from traditional mythology believable. We understand her motivations behind the actions she’s taken, and for those lovers of mythology, I feel they will be truly satisfied with this read.
Miller very much like Barker has a true talent for writing. The tone of Circe echoes with an emotional restraint and wisdom befitting a God. Each chapter tells a portion of Circe’s eternal life, and we come to understand her motivations, her desires, and her longing for a life with a happy ending.
“I have wondered something,” I said. “When we fought over Athena, how did you know to kneel to me? That it would shame me?”
“Ah. It was a guess. Something Odysseus said about you once.”
“That he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.”
I smiled. Even dead he could surprise me. “I suppose that is true…”
I don’t usually fall in love with books that are ‘hyped,’ up, but I fell in love with this one. Circe is an honest unveiling of a minor character in what is perceived to be a ‘great work.’ And in digging deeper in who she is and what she desires most, gives other ancient classics new depth and meaning.
I gave this book 4 stars. I felt it never wavered from its endeavor in trying to reclaim the feminist perspective within mythology, and I also felt that there was more action to keep it moving along. I feel this is one that could take some people a while to get through, whereas you will be more likely to plow through The Silence of the Girls.
Each chapter ends like it is its own individual story, making it easier to get up and walk away from if you choose to. I was unable to do that with The Silence of the Girls as the chapters ended with something lingering in the air to move you forward as a reader.
But again, in the grander scheme of these novels, the negatives are minute if anything. Both of the works deserve their place in the history of storytelling, and can only serve to provide more enrichment and understanding on classic tales we learn as adolescents. These are two books that every girl needs in order to understand her individual history as a woman.
I couldn’t recommend them anymore beyond telling all of you to go read!
Until next time, bookworms!