Book Review: A Thousand Ships

This is the story The Poet will tell, or he will tell none at all.

I am on a Mythology kick! With Lore Olympus on Webtoon, my love of Song of Achilles burning months later, and especially because of my addiction to Hades on my Switch: We’re getting more and more myths, and retellings. I love it. I need it. I want more. So I picked up A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. 

This book is one of many retellings that have become popular in the last few years. Much in the Vein of Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, A Thousand Ships follows the lives of “the Others” in the great story of The Iliad- the Homeric Epic that follows the end of the Trojan War. Natalie Haynes brings fresh air to the ancient tale- giving us the “other side” while still following the original story. 

Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, has been called on by The Poet. He wants to write a great epic. Calliope is sick of the men getting all the attention. They get all the glory, their achievements central, and yet they are not the only ones. The women are there too, unable to be immortalized on the battlefield.  The Poet begs, so, she gives him the women of Troy. The wives and daughters of both the Trojans and the Greeks. Familiar names. Helen, Hermione, Penelope, the ill-fated Cassandra and more. A cast of characters often left in the shadows of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. From the Trojan horse to the end of their lives- we are given the other half of these epics. The ones that were a line here, a line there, a plot point, or just a small tragedy in light of the men’s achievements and sufferings. 

This is a relatively simple book considering what it is facing up against. The old stories can be very difficult to get through. Haynes writing is excellent and easy to follow. There is an index at the beginning of the book- but I found it to be better just to roll with it. The story flows nicely from woman to woman. I found it tedious until about the first quarter was done, however I fully recognize that may have just been me (I just moved cities reading hasn’t been a huge priority for me). 

I found it useful to have read Madeline Miller before tackling this one- but I also have had the luxury of being a part of other creative processes that gave me more background as to what was happening- as well as pronunciation. 

I think that It’s important that I recognize and acknowledge that these stories that have been passed down through the centuries can be inaccessible. Original “translations” can be boorish, tedious, and full of interpretations that have become rigid rather than a part of conversations.  

Mostly: I love that these retellings exist because they are making these old and “Western Canon” stories more accessible and breathing new life into them. A Thousand Ships is an excellent example of solid, easy to understand writing. She knows her stuff without making you feel bad that you haven’t had the time/money/energy to burn on “the original”. So, curl up with this one and enjoy an old story in a new way. 

2 Replies to “Book Review: A Thousand Ships”

  1. Natalie Haynes also has an amazing comedy classics podcast called “Stand Up For The Classics” that is definitely worth checking out

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