A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes provides a unique and fresh look at the Trojan War by retelling it from an all-female perspective. With Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and several classical Greek plays serving as her inspiration, Haynes gives voice to nearly two dozen females ranging from slaves, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, nymphs, and goddesses.
With the exception of Calliope, the muse of poetry, who speaks in the first person, and Penelope whose voice is heard in the letters she sends to Odysseus, the narrative unfolds in the third person point of view. The perspective changes from one character to the next, with the narrative flashing forward and backward in time to reveal a character’s back story, and disclose the causes, duration, and aftermath of the war.
Haynes’ vivid imagery and diction bring to life the agony and trauma experienced by the Trojan women. We run alongside Creusa as she vainly struggles to find a viable escape from a city engulfed in flames. We hear Hecabe’s guttural cry when the Greeks drop the mangled body of her youngest son, Polydorus, at her feet. We watch Polyxena claw her face when she recognizes her brother’s corpse. We share Andromache’s anguish as she clutches her young son, pleading with the Greek soldiers not to wrest him from her arms to certain death. We feel Cassandra’s paralyzing helplessness as she predicts the future unfolding before her eyes only to have no one believe her. We huddle together with the Trojan women as each awaits her fate, whether it be to slavery or sacrificial death. We feel the festering of Clytemnestra’s anger toward Agamemnon as she plots to avenge her daughter’s death. And we listen in as Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena squabble like badly-behaved children to possess the golden apple.
For the most part, the characters are well developed, believable, and demonstrate great resilience and strength in the face of adversity. But a few are indistinguishable, speaking as they do with the same voice. Andromache and Cassandra are particularly strong and moving. The forever patient Penelope is somewhat insipid as she pleads for Odysseus to come home. Her letters serve as fillers, restating Odysseus’ adventures on his ten-year homeward trek after the war. A few characters make brief appearances in the form of short vignettes; others survive long after the end of the war.
Haynes injects the occasional note of humor into an otherwise traumatic event. Calliope as the muse of poetry takes funny jabs at the poet who pesters her for inspiration. She is determined to force his lens on women and to convince him their suffering and endurance is as heroic as that of the men who fought and died on the battlefield.
By shifting the lens of vision, by moving women from periphery to center, Natalie Haynes has made a significant contribution to feminist retellings of classical myths. Her story is imaginative; her words engaging. She has heard the song of the feminist muse and given voice to those whose voices have been muffled since the beginning of recorded history. How refreshing it is to finally hear their voices.