Revisiting Greek Mythology

Born Patricia Mary W. Drake, Pat Barker has risen from anonymity to become one of Great Britain’s most recognized writers. However, in order for her to attain the level of success she currently has, Barker had to wriggle herself out of dire and narrow straits. For one, she was born out of wedlock during a period when society shunned both the conceived and the conceiver. She was presented as her mother’s younger sister while growing up not having an iota about who her father was. When her mother married, she chose to stay with her grandmother with whom mother and daughter have been staying. She also had to deal with growing up in destitution. This, however, did not hold her back from chasing after her dreams, starting with winning a place at grammar school.

The young Barker’s passion for reading made her pursue International History at the London School of Economics. While she started writing in her mid-twenties and was even encouraged to pursue a career as a writer by no less than Angela Carter, Barker’s literary career would not take off until 1982 after shifting careers from teaching History and Politics. During the same year she left academia, she published her first novel, Union Street, which won her the Fawcett Society Book Prize. A year later, she was named one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists by the Book Marketing Council and Granta magazine. Meanwhile, her second book, Blow Your House Down, published in 1984, was adapted into a play by Sarah Daniels in 1994. More success ensued with her renowned Regeneration Trilogy which commenced with Regeneration (1991). It was succeeded by The Eye in the Door (1993) which won the Guardian Fiction Prize. The winner of the Booker Prize in Fiction, The Ghost Road (1995) completed the trilogy.

With Regeneration Trilogy being cited as one of the best works of historical fiction, Barker has set the tone for the rest of her literary career while establishing a reputation as one of the contemporary’s foremost chroniclers of history. It was in history that she anchored her 2018 novel, The Silence of the Girls. While the Regeneration Trilogy grappled with the First World War, The Silence of the Girls was the retelling of one of the most loved epics in the world of literature, Homer’s The Iliad. Barker transported the readers to the midst of the Trojan War. The story commenced with Achilles leading the Greek Army in pillaging Lyrnessus. The onslaught was relentless and the outcome was evident. The Greeks easily won over the Trojans. In the wake of the attack, the city’s male population was virtually annihilated while their women were abducted by the Greeks. The city’s riches were also looted while the rest of the city was left to burn down to ashes.

“I thought: Suppose, suppose just once, once, all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”

~ Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

Among the women abducted by Achilles and his men was Briseis, the queen of Lyrnessus and the childless wife of King Mynes. It has been customary for the victors to divide their loot amongst themselves. As part of the loot, the captured Trojan women were divided among the Greek leaders, with Briseis, who was of royal blood, given to no less than Achilles himself. It can be a foregone conclusion that Achilles, the Greek stereotype of virility, would be the driving force of the novel. The events recounted by Barker were faithful to the accounts of the events during the Trojan War as written by Homer. Barker recaptured the seminal events that transpired in the Greek camp, from the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon to Achilles’ refusal to rejoin the war to King Priam’s plea for his son’s body to countless deaths.

The heart of the story, however, was not Achilles, deemed the greatest Greek fighter. Rather, Barker shifted the perspective from the men to the women. It was through Briseis’ perspective that modern readers get to reexperience the Homeric poem. The male experience often dominated discourses on war. This also holds true in literature and was palpable in the Homeric poem. While these works captured vividly the male war experience. One thing was also evident: the female voice, oftentimes, was muted, lost in the cacophony of male voices. Indeed, The Silence of the Girls being the novel’s title was apt as it carried far more implications that went beyond the story itself. More than the Trojan War, the titular silence of “girls” (and women) was an embodiment of how women across generations were silenced, not only by wars but also by men and the patriarchy.

Deviating from the archetypes of war stories, in The Silence of the Girls Barker captured the struggles of women. Through Briseis and her fellow Trojan women, we read about the nightmares women had to go through. We read about the dehumanizing horrors that they had to witness and experience. As if the fall of their homeland and bearing witness to its inevitable downfall were not enough, the women of Troy had to suffer several other indignities that further devalued them. Where the suffering of some men ended, the suffering of women started. Andromache, for instance, prior to losing her husband, had witnessed how her father and seven brothers were mercilessly slaughtered by the Greeks. The women who managed to survive the onslaught were subsequently stripped of their wealth and of their titles.

The women were not even afforded the luxury of burying their dead. Rather, following the fall of the men, they were forcefully captured and treated as objects, reminiscent of how women, over the course of history, have had to submit themselves to the whims of men. They were living war trophies at the disposal of the victors. Most women were treated as domestic slaves doing chores for their masters. The less fortunate ones ended up being sex slaves. One thing was for sure, the women were subservient to the whims of their conquerors. It was one of many instances when women were silenced. The objectification of women was rife and they had no recourse but to submit to their fate. At one point, Briseis found herself the point of contention between Agamemnon, the most powerful but not the bravest of the Greeks, and Achilles.

“I listened and let it soothe me, that ceaseless ebb and flow, the crash of the breaking waves, the grating sigh of its retreat. It was like lying on the chest of somebody who loves you, somebody you know you can trust—though the sea loves nobody and can never be trusted. I was immediately aware of a new desire, to be part of it, to dissolve into it: the sea that feels nothing and can never be hurt.”

~ Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

The shift to a female-centric narrative, however, did not diminish the male voice. Yes, men remained superlative like in the original. Achilles and his fellow Greek men still figured prominently in the story. Alternating with the perspective of Briseis were the third-person perspectives of Achilles. These chapters recounted the tension building up toward his face-off against Hector. These chapters were also attempts at providing Achilles’ psychological profile. While these Achilles-centered chapters reminded the readers of his looming presence and his insurmountable place in Greek mythology, the story did not divert the focus from Briseis. It was a further reminder of how war stories are often male-centric. Achilles, however, remained at a distance as Barker’s most affectionate writing was saved for Briseis.

Familiar characters from the original work also appeared in the story. The King of Troy, King Priam was in the story and we meet him in one of the most powerful scenes of the novel. On the other hand, this also subtly underlined how men see themselves s superlative, whether in literature, history, or in reality. In the throes of defeat, the King of Troy uttered, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Defeat may have humbled him a bit but he still endeavored to seize the upper hand. The male ego is fragile and men have always had the compunction of elevating themselves to such lofty pedestals. Briseis, while watching the scene unfold before her, thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” The fragility of the male ego was the antithesis of the silence of the girls.

In the end, The Silence of the Girls was the story of wars. While highlighting male aggression and its consequences, we read about the massive cost of wars. Toward the end of the story, Briseis ruminated on the cost and the impact of war. Wars, voyages, and conquests have been romanticized. Young men end up dead and yet their deaths were glorified. Songs of paean and poems of their bravery were sung in festive spirits. In a eureka moment, Briseis saw through this glorification. These were deaths that should not be glorified. The loss of a young man was tragic. Equally, if not more tragic was the fate of women and children who survive these wars. Elsewhere, the novel grappled with the pangs of remembrance and the looming feeling of isolation.

The success of The Silence of the Girls underlined the recent surge of literary works that incorporated details of Greek mythology. Prominent among these retellings are Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series which is getting a new sequel and Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe. Riordan’s five-piece was successful commercially for its young adult and coming-of-age overtones, but Miller, and subsequently, Barker, ushered in a different perspective from which the entire Greek mythology can be reexamined. Viewed through another lens, Miller and Barker’s works gave prominent a voice to characters who are easily overlooked in the original works. They were drowned out by the voices of the more prominent and popular characters. This was evident in Miller’s The Song of Achilles which studied Achilles through the perspective of Patroclus and Circe which humanized one of the most vilified characters in the ambit of Greek mythology. Briseis seizing the narrative in The Silence of the Girls continued this tradition.

“in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles—or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?”

~ Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

Feminism was a prominent theme in the novel, This was a stark dichotomy to the original work. In The Iliad, a woman was the root cause of the war. Apart from Helen, the “face who set a thousand ships”, she was joined by an eclectic and equally interesting cast of women, including Briseis and Andromache. Ironically, their stories were ancillary to the greater portrait of war, the playground of the male ego; their voices were drowned by the pandemonium. The Silence of the Girls sought to redress this miscarriage in literature and history. Interestingly, when the book was released, the #MeToo movement started gathering steam all over the world. Victims of sexual abuse, silenced by their abusers, have started speaking out about the abuses they had to experience at the hand of powerful and influential men.

The Silence of the Girls was beautifully rendered by Barker’s storytelling and prose. While not without its flaws, it was a powerful and timely literary piece about the feminist movement captured through the lenses of a character in Greek mythology. With Briseis playing a central and critical role in the story, Barker made her message resonate. She reminded modern readers of how women across history have been silenced. The rise of the #MeToo movement was an iteration of the book’s message. Barker managed to shed new light on a beloved classic while staying faithful to the story. In doing so, Barker was also underlining how wars were often about the victors. Those on the losing are forgotten and lost in the annals of history. Like the stories of Patroclus and Circe in Miller’s novels, The Silence of the Girls gave voice to an ancillary character whose voice was drowned by encomiums dedicated to heroes such as Achilles. It coaxes the readers to reexamine their understanding of history through the stories of characters who were silenced.

“Now, he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains. There’s no way of avoiding the agony–or even of getting through it faster. It’s got him in its claws and it won’t let go till he’s learnt every lesson it has to teach.”

~ Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls
Rating

74%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

It was through the Booker Prize that I first came across Pat Barker. Her novel, The Ghost Road won the prestigious Booker Prize back in 1995. I was able to obtain a copy of her book but I had to put off reading the book after I learned it was the last book in her Regeneration Trilogy. I would also obtain a copy of her latest work, The Women of Troy after I came across positive feedback from fellow book bloggers. Besides, I love Greek mythology and I have been enjoying the retellings of Greek mythology. However, I again had to put off reading the book after I learned that it was a sequel. I had no choice but to read the first book, The Silence of the Girls. That was how I found myself reading The Silence of the Girls. In the original story, Briseis was a minor character whose presence was forgettable at best. This was one of the reasons why I like retellings: they gave voices to characters whose roles have been dismissed in the original text. I do admit, I did struggle to appreciate the story at first. Finding myself in a new territory can be disconcerting. It did not help that the voices of women I was hoping for were again muted. That was when I started understanding Miller’s intentions. The silence was explicit.

Book Specs

Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 291
Genre: Mythology, Historical

Synopsis

Here is the story of The Illiad as we’ve never heard it before: in the words of Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. Given only a few words in Homer’s epic and largely erased by history, she is nonetheless a pivotal figure in the Trojan War. In these pages she comes fully to life: wry, watchful, forging connections among her fellow female prisoners even as she is caught between Greece’s two most powerful warriors. Her story pulls back the veil on the thousands to women who lived behind the scenes of the Greek army camp – concubines, nurses, prostitutes, the women who lay out the dead – as gods and mortals spar, and as a legendary war hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion. Brilliantly written, filled with moments of terror and beauty, The Silence of the Girls gives voice to an extraordinary woman – and makes an ancient story new again.

About the Author

Patricia Mary W. Barker was born on May 8, 1943, in Thornaby-on-Tees, North Riding of Yorkshire, England. She was an illegitimate child but her birth was kept a secret due to the conservative views prevalent around the time of her birth. She was introduced as her mother’s younger sister and when her mother married when she was seven, the Barker chose to remain with her grandmother whom they were staying with. She attended King James Grammar School in Knaresborough and Grangefield Grammar School in Stockton-on-Tees after she won a place at grammar school. She then attended the London School of Economics from 1962 to 1965, studying international history. She also studied at Durham University.

Barker, however, did not start her literary endeavors immediately. She started writing in her mid-twenties and was even encouraged by Angela Carter. However, post-university, she taught history and politics until 1982. It was also in 1982 that Barker published her first novel, Union Street (1982). It was a critical success that won Barker the Fawcett Society Book Prize. A year later, she was named one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists by the Book Marketing Council and Granta magazine. Riding this wave of momentum, Barker published Blow Your House Down (1984) and Liza’s England (1986; originally published as The Century’s Daughter). Her sophomore novel was even adapted into a stage play by Sarah Daniels in 1994

It was, however, the Regeneration Trilogy that would establish Barker’s caliber as a writer of international fame. The trilogy revolved around the events of the First World War and started with Regeneration (1991) which was inspired by the stories of Barker’s grandfather during the said war. It was succeeded by The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). Both were also critical successes, with the former winning the Guardian Fiction Prize and the latter winning the Booker Prize for Fiction. The Regeneration Trilogy was also cited as one of the best works of historical fiction. Her 2018 novel, The Silence of the Girls was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Women of Troy (2021) was Barker’s latest work.

In 2000, Barker was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Barker is currently residing in Durham, England.