Women in Mythological Retellings: Different Song, Same Verse

This post could also be titled “Why I haven’t read Song of Achilles.”

Recently I picked up The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, because I love a) mythology b) mythological retellings (especially from a feminist perspective) and c) Margaret Atwood. It was a short and overall enjoyable read – but I found myself troubled by one aspect of the story, and that was the portrayal of Helen of Troy.

In The Penelopiad, Penelope clearly dislikes Helen, and Helen is not depicted as very likable. A vain, cruel woman, the easiest way to describe her depiction is “catty.” I read an analysis of the book that described the relationship between the women – pretty universally poor, except between Penelope and her maids – as an artifact of the competition of Greek women of the time. My own explanation is a little less charitable. In mythological retellings, even when a woman is the main character, the villain seems to end up being another woman.

I kept hearing about the book Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller from friends of mine who are interested in mythology. Reading the synopsis, however, I found myself putting the book down with a grimace on account of one sentence:

As they [Achilles and Patroclus] grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper—despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Why was this necessary? As I remarked to my girlfriend at the time: is there not enough conflict in that story already? Why add a disapproving mother? Why make Thetis the villain?

There are so many ways to retell myths in new ways. Yet we keep choosing to tell them in ways that perpetuate the misogyny of the old ones. Tell me stories about Briseis and Chyseis finding solace in each other. Tell me stories about the relationship between Andromache and Cassandra. Tell me about Helen’s friendship with Clytemnestra.

Women get set against each other enough. Give me something new.

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