Retelling the Iliad in “The Silence of the Girls”

August 22, 2021

Retelling ancient Greek stories in not a new phenomenon. It goes back well into prehistory and the oral tradition. Poets retold their tales, which were passed down through the generations, and eventually those stories were written down with the development of writing. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have been retold countless times and in recent years, the retellings have taken the point of view of unexpected characters, highlighting the unheard voices in these dramatic epics.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a powerful and moving novel that reimagines The Iliad from the point of view of Briseis, a queen captured by the Greeks in the Trojan War, condemned to be bed-slave to Achilles who butchered her family. Life in the Greek camp for the women taken as slaves is highlighted against the backdrop of the drama of the war so familiar to those of us who have read Homer’s Iliad and the many Greek tragedies that depict the aftermath. All the characters, but especially the women, take on a depth in the novel that is only hinted at in the epic poem.

The violence is there as well, but it is somehow more poignant as we get to know the characters from a different angle. The gods and heroes had their flaws from ancient times, but here we see the collateral damage and the consequences of their actions on a different scale. Achilles, the famed hero, loathed enemy, ruthless butcher, darkly troubled spirit is also at the center of this retelling as Briseis' fate is now inextricably entwined with his.

There are just ten weeks to go until the fall of Troy, the end of the long and bitter war, at the start of The Iliad: the most famous war story ever told, but the characters are not aware of that fact. Briseis, one of the thousands of female slaves in the soldiers camp- in the laundry, at the loom, laying out the dead- is our witness to history in this story of male power, male ego, and male violence.

Barker, perhaps best known for her powerful Regeneration trilogy set during World War I, has written a follow-up to The Silence of the Girls, titled The Women of Troy, which picks up after the fall of Troy. Set to be released on August 24, the book opens with the victorious Greeks eager to return home with the spoils of an endless war- including the women of Troy themselves. They await a fair wind to sail the Aegean, but it does not come, because the gods are offended. The body of King Priam lies unburied and desecrated, and so the victors remain in suspension, camped in the shadows of the city they destroyed as the coalition that held them together begins to unravel. Old feuds resurface and new suspicions and rivalries begin to fester.

Largely unnoticed by her captors, the one time Trojan queen Briseis, formerly Achilles' slave, now belonging to his companion Alcimus, quietly takes in these developments. She forges alliances when she can, with Priam's aged wife the defiant Hecuba and with the disgraced soothsayer Calchas, all the while shrewdly seeking her path to revenge.

Both books by Pat Barker are available online and in bookstores.


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