Monday, 6 January 2020

Great Books of 2019: The Matter of Troy Revisited

2019 has been an unusual year, in that the short-lists for major literary awards have included a number of novels which take their inspiration, directly or indirectly, from one of the oldest stories in the European literary canon: that of the Siege of Troy, and its immediate aftermath. This story may well have its origins in the intertwined realities and mythologies of the Aegean Bronze Age, and finds its earliest literary manifestation in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, thought to have been written down for the first time in the mid-8th Century BC. These foundational texts have already influenced writers over more than a hundred generations, from Aeschylus & Sophocles; through Vergil and Ovid; to Shakespeare, Milton, and James Joyce (they even influenced Dante and Chaucer, who could read not a single sentence of Homer, but rather relied on the versions of the story recorded by the later Latin writers). For a writer of the 21st Century to situate himself or herself in this tradition is to make a bold claim, but also to take on a great challenge. What can such a writer possibly add to a story that has been constantly reworked in the course of 2800 years?

Vase, found at Thebes, possibly depicting the abduction of Helen by Paris. Photo: British Museum. This vessel, dated c 735 BC, may have been made during Homer's lifetime.

Detail of the vase above.

Homer and Vergil were epic poets, not historical novelists, and the novelist, unlike the poet, is almost invariably concerned with viewpoint, since that, arguably, is what makes the novel a novel. The default viewpoint of the epic poet is that of the rhapsode himself, even if he narrates through his protagonist (Odysseus, for example): he is omniscient; party even to the deliberations of the gods; and inevitably male. For Pat Barker, in The Silence of the Girls, and for Natalie Haynes, in A Thousand Ships, the point, then, is to tell the old story from new (and specifically female) viewpoints. Both of these novels take their lead from Homer's Iliad, and neither takes any great liberties with the story itself.

Barker takes (for the most part) a single female viewpoint: that of Briseis, the enslaved woman from a city allied to Troy, over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel. She follows most of the conventions of the realist novel, and paints a vivid picture of life, in slavery, in an enemy camp. Barker is not the first novelist to narrate the story from Briseis's point of view (Judith Starkston does so in Hand of Fire, and with a good deal more historical attention to the cultural context of the Anatolian Bronze Age), but she does so with great humanity and compassion, and with an understanding of the realities of war that she has honed over years of writing about more recent conflicts:

"The hospital hut filled with men tossing and turning in sweaty sheets. The few brave enough to visit their friends carried lemons stuck with twigs of rosemary and bay, but nothing could keep the noxious fumes out of your lungs. This was not the coughing plague so some of those who fell ill did survive, but many didn't. By the end of the first week, men were dying in such numbers that funerals could no longer be dignified rituals honouring the dead. Instead, bodies were transported under cover of darkness t a deserted part of the beach to be disposed of as swiftly and secretly as possible. Corpse fires were visible from Troy and nobody wanted the Trojans to know how many Greeks were dying, so often five or six bodies would be thrown on to a single pyre."

Barker does, at times, depart from Briseis's viewpoint and narrates, either omisciently, or from the viewpoint of other characters (Patroclus, for example), but I found these departures distracting, rather than enlightening, given the clear focus of the novel as a whole.

Haynes, on the other hand, makes a virtue of her frequent switches in viewpoint: Briseis is one of her protagonists, but so is Calliope (the Muse of Epic Poetry), Creusa (the wife of Aeneas), Iphigenia (the daughter of Agamemnon), Penelope (the wife of Odysseus) and "The Trojan Women" as a group. Her descriptions of the squalor of the Greek camp were, for me, less vivid than Barker's, but this is balanced by the delightfully poignant humour of some of her viewpoints, notably Penelope's. Haynes draws, not only on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but also on Euripides's Trojan Women and Hecabe, Vergil's Aeneid, and Ovid's Heroides.

"Sing Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request. If I were minded to accede to his wish, I might say that he sharpens his tone on my name, like a warrior drawing his dagger across a whetstone, preparing for the morning's battle. 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. Certainly he hasn't: like all poets, he thinks only of himself. But it is surprising that he hasn't considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention and support. How much epic poetry does the world really need?"

It is surely a misfortune, both for Barker, and for Haynes, that they embarked upon these projects at more or less the same time. They are very different writers, with very different approaches, and rather different backgrounds, but they have chosen the same material, the same events, the same characters, and I wonder how many readers will have the appetite for both? I read them both because the "reception" of Greek classics by later writers, including my own contemporaries, is one of the topics that I teach; but perhaps what is missing, in both cases, is something more than merely a different viewpoint (or set of viewpoints) to distinguish these works from all the reworkings that have come before?

Madeline Miller, in Circe, takes her inspiration from The Odyssey, rather than The Iliad. Again, the emphasis is on a different (and female) viewpoint, that of the witch, Circe, who turns Odysseus's men into pigs, and delays his return home. Circe, however, is immortal, and this creates a difficulty for a novelist. When I tell my students that the novel, as a literary form, is fundamentally concerned with viewpoint, I take for granted that the viewpoint is a human one, and that there is much that can remain unsaid, simply on the basis of our shared humanity: this includes our mortality, our sexuality (the fact of it, rather than its specific nature), our embededness in institutions and relationships that existed before we were born, and will continue to exist after we are dead. Circe is not human, and there is therefore much about her existence that cannot remain unsaid, that must rather be explained. I found these explanations a good deal more distracting than Barker's occasional shifts of viewpoint, precisely, in this instance, because I already understood the concepts that were being explained:

"The fury did not bother with  lecture. She was a goddess of torment and understood the eloquence of violence. The sound of the whip was a crack like oaken branches breaking. Prometheus' shoulders jerked and a gash opened in his side long as my arm. All around me indrawn breaths hissed like water on hot rocks. The fury lifted her lash again ... The wounds of gods heal fast, but the Fury knew her business and was faster ... I had understood gods could bleed, but I had never seen it. He was one of the greatest of our kind, and the drops that fell from him were golden, smearing his back with a terrible beauty."

Miller does not confine herself to Homer's account: being immortal, Circe exists before Odysseus, and continues to exist after him (his departure from her island is, in a sense, the tipping point of the novel); like Haynes, she draws on other sources (one could almost believe that she has read the lost - or perhaps, mythical - Telegoniad, as well as the Iliad and Odyssey), and there is a twist in the tale of Circe's relationship with Odysseus. The twist, however, comes before the end, and that means that "the end," when it comes, is something of an anti-climax.

The Sophilos Dinos, in the British Museum, made c 580-570 BC, and depicting the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (the parents of Achilles).

Chigozie Obioma's An Orchestra of Minorities is a very different sort of novel: it is not a work of historical fiction, and does not share characters with, or recreate the events described in, Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. The Odyssey is invoked, but only a few times, and in passing (the protagonist has read a version of it a long time ago). What is shared with the Homeric epic is its broad themes and structure (a man leaves his homeland with a clear purpose in mind; he undertakes a long, arduous, and perilous journey; and ultimately returns, a changed and damaged man, to find that the realities that he thought he was coming back to have changed utterly).

The wanderer is not Greek, but Nigerian, and he travels, not as a warrior to Troy, but as a student to Northern Cyprus, where he finds that he has been deceived and defrauded by someone he had thought of as a friend. Like the other books here, Obioma's novel is bound up with mythology, but it is the mythology of the Igbo people of Nigeria, and it is only partially explained, which, for me, made the book more, not less, exciting. The viewpoint of the novel is not that of the protagonist, Chinonso, himself, but rather that of his Chi, a sort of guardian spirit, accountable, not to its human "host," but to the Igbo pantheon of deities and ancestral spirits.

"Chukwu, it struck him now, in this distant country of sky and dust and strange men, that what she feared that day had no happened to him. A poultry farmer named Jamike Nwaorji, having groomed him for some time, having plucked excess feathers from his body, having fed him with mash and millet, having let him graze about gaily, having probably staunched a leg wounded by a stray nail, had now sealed him up in a cage. And all he could do now, all there was to do now, was cry and wail. He had now joined many others, all the people Tobe had listed who had been defrauded of their belongings - the Nigerian girl near the police station, the man at the airport, all those who have been captured against their will to do what they did not want to do either in the past or the present, all who have been forced into joining an entity they do not wish to belong to, and countless others. All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilisations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed and killed. With all these people, he'd come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail."

In the twenty-eight centuries since the death of Homer, his stories of the fall of Troy have been retold many times. Take, for example, the Ephaemeris Belli Trojani of Dictys Cretensis (c 350 AD), or the Roman de Troie of Benoit de Ste-Maure (c 1160), or the Historia Destructionis Troiae of Guido delle Colonne (c 1287): these texts are historically important, in that they kept those stories alive in a world in which Greek was no longer understood, but, in literary terms, they hardly rank as canonical. Those reworkings of the "Matter of Troy" (in Medieval Europe, it became subsumed under the "Matter of Rome," which, even before Vergil's time, was believed to have been founded by the descendants of Trojan refugees) that have really counted, that have shaped the development of European and World literature, have been those that have transformed, rather than those that have simply retold those stories: Vergil's focus on the journey of a refugee, rather than that of a conquering hero; Dante's elision of Classical and Catholic ideas of the afterlife; Milton's Protestant epic, which grants real agency to the universal anti-hero; and James Joyce's adoption of the epic idiom to the daily realities of life in early Twentieth Century Dublin.  If we are looking, in this young century of ours, for an heir to this great tradition, my money would be on Chigozie Obioma. 

Roman Republican coin of C. Mamilius Limetanius (c 82 BC), depicting Odysseus.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.