The Silence of the Girls

SilenceOfTheGirls_200x300    Pat Barker’s Trojan women really know what’s going on in The Silence of the Girls, but they have no voice in Homer’s Iliad.   If you missed reading this classic and have wondered what all the allusions mean, Barker’s story follows the original plot closely – even to Achilles’ best friend disguising himself with Achilles’ god-given armor.  Unlike other retellings of The Iliad, Barker tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, with the narrator the captured queen Briseis, a friend of the infamous Helen of Troy, who becomes Achilles’ slave.

The battles are brutal, the men are uncivilized, the feasting is sloppy, the hygiene is nonexistent, and the rats are everywhere.  The women observe, serve, and wait.

If you know the story, the plot line is not a mystery and the outcome not a surprise, but Barker uses Briseis to fill in the story behind the glory. In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is the catalyst in a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  After Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands Breseis for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight, threatening the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize in conquering her homeland, the city of Lyrnessus, Briseis is a minor character referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in Homer’s epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Pat Barker gives Briseis a voice.

Barker addresses how differently history treats men and ignores women.   When King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body, he cries:  “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” This moment is among the most celebrated in literature, and yet Briseis’s perspective is very different. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”   When Briseis described the famous Helen’s confession of how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The civilized Greeks who gave us democracy and Socratic inquiry could be very uncivilized. Barker dismisses the legend of the Achilles heel, as well as the glory of all those Greek heroes who have been lionized in songs, plays and books. Breisis tells the real story from the silenced women and ends with an admonition – we change history to suit, soften its horrors to be able to live with it.

“What will they make of us, the people of this unimaginable 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 of the massacre of men and boys, and 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….{and} Achilles {will be}granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…”

Despite the anachronisms and coarse language, Barker’s story makes its point – those silent women’s voices can be very powerful.  In another retelling of a Greek classic, Madeline Miller’s book, Circe, centers around a minor character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who became the protagonist Odysseus’s lover.  Maybe I’ll read that next.