A story can be told in many ways, but the earliest stories come to us through the oral tradition. Sometimes we can glean the transformation of an oral tradition into the written word and sometimes that setting down of words crystallises a way of telling. Sometimes it can take a long time to shift perspective. The last five years has been a time of shifting. These ideas and more are some of the key thoughts Natalie Haynes offered on the Trojan War at the public lecture presented at the University of Sydney on the 9th of August MMXIX.
The lecture is timely and co-incidences with the recent release of Haynes’ novel A Thousand Ships. Entitled ‘Troy Story’, the title of the lecture played nicely upon one of the popular classical memes doing the rounds on how we might translate the Iliad with a modern, punchy feel. And the title set the bar for an engaging performance by Haynes who had survived windy flight delays coming and speaking on the back of just having landed. Kudos indeed to anyone willing to perform mere hours after landing, what was presumably, a long haul flight!
Haynes had the audience’s attention with her combination of crisp, pointed, classical references and the light-hearted presentation of serious takes on the ancient material. If you have the chance to catch Haynes in a public performance, you won’t be disappointed. Her background in stand-up ensures you a performance piece while her love for the classics shines through.
On the Women of Ancient Epic – A New Troy Story
There was a serious underlying message and one that is beginning to reach the public beyond the hallways and byways of the academic corridors. Women have been overlooked, and read past, despite framing the narrative of the Trojan war, and populating the stories of the Trojan epic cycle preserved today in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the great tradition of retelling classic stories in a new context and with a new focus, the women of the war are beginning to find new voice. This is the central touchstone to which Haynes returned throughout the lecture.
There has been a steady trajectory in the twenty-first century towards focusing attention on the women in the classical material. Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005) was a breakthrough reconceptualistion of the Odyssey focusing on the women of Ithaca. Since then there has been a range of contemporary retellings of Homer including Song for Achilles (2011)and Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller, and Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker. In addition to this, the first translation of the Odyssey into English by a woman, Emily Wilson (2018) created headlines around the world and refocused many discussion on the nature of translation and what it means depending on gender.
Where to from Here
Haynes’ A Thousand Ships (2019) offers a new path for contemporary readers by exploring the Trojan war through the perspective of the woman that populate the war-torn world. Haynes’ noted that she draws inspiration from the other authors working in this area and cited Mary Renault as laying the groundwork for the writing that is emerging today. It’s fair to say that A Thousand Ships on our reading list and we recommend you add it to yours!