A Thousand Ships: Penelope

An extract from A Thousand Ships, the new novel from broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes in which she retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective. The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent...


8. Penelope

My dearest husband,

Can it really be ten long years since you sailed from Ithaca to join Agamemnon and the other Greek kings in their ignoble quest to bring Helen back from Troy? Was it a thousand ships which sailed, in the end? That’s what the bards sing now. A thousand ships, all sailing across the perilous oceans in hope of finding one man’s wife. It remains, I’m sure you agree, an astonishing state of affairs.

I don’t blame you, Odysseus, of course I don’t. I know you did your best to avoid leaving me, still a young bride, our son just a few months old. Playing dead might have worked a little better, perhaps, but playing mad was a good idea too.

I still remember that snotty Argolid’s face when you ploughed the fields with salt. He thought you quite insane. In my recollection, you were pulling the most hideous faces, and the man looked at me with such pity. A baby with a madman; no woman should endure such a fate. How close you came to dodging their draft. So close to staying with me, leaving the other Greeks to indulge in their oath-bound folly.

But of course it would be Agamemnon who forced your hand. I will never forget him ordering his man to snatch Telemachus from my arms and place him on the damp ground in front of you. Testing your madness by endan- gering your son: would you plough on regardless, and slice right through him, right through the chubby limbs of your own child? Or would you see the infant, know him, and stop? You will forgive me for saying that I’m not sure I have ever wished anyone dead with quite such enthusiasm as I did Agamemnon that day. And bear in mind that I grew up in Sparta, so have spent more time than most with Helen.

Sometimes, when the mood takes me and the wind blows through our draughty halls from the north, I offer a little prayer for the death of Agamemnon. I used to wish he would die in battle, but now I hope for a more igno- minious end for the man: a falling rock, perhaps, or a rabid dog.

You couldn’t keep feigning the madness in the circum- stances, I understand that. To protect your son, our child, you had to stop, and in so doing reveal the truth. And though I wept to see you sail away the following morning, I felt sure you would be home again before the end of the year. How many moons can it take to track down an unfaithful wife, after all?

First the days dragged by, then the months. Then the seasons and finally the years. Ten years, now, and still Menelaus can neither persuade his wife to come back home, nor accept that he is a red-faced bore and find himself a new wife, one less exacting than Helen.

It seems impossible that you have been gone so long. You have never seen your son walk, or heard him speak, or watched him swing from the low branches of the old pine tree that grows beside the east wall of our palace. He looks like me more than you, you know. He has my build: tall and slender. And though I love him from the very depths of my heart, I have nonetheless found myself thinking of the other children we might have had, if you had killed him that day. We would have lost our first child, but we might have had four more.

It is unworthy of me even to think such thoughts, I know. But the seasons have turned so many times, hus- band, and I am no longer a girl. I have begged the gods to bring you home before I turn barren with age. And perhaps now my prayers have been heard, because there are rumours flying across Greece, even to our craggy outpost, which say that the war is finally over. Is it true? I can hardly bear to ask. But the watchmen have lit their beacons and the news races from one hilltop to the next: the Greeks have won at last. I know you will have had a hand in the victory, Odysseus. I tell Telemachus that his father is the cleverest man to walk the earth. Cleverer than Eumaeus? he asks. He does not mean to be insulting, by the way. He is fond of Eumaeus. I say yes, you are cleverer than the swineherd. Cleverer than you, Mama? he says. No, precious, I tell him. Not quite as clever as me. And then I tickle him, so he doesn’t ask how I know.

But if he were to ask, and I were to answer that ques- tion, I would say this. I would not have let them see I was not mad, and I would not have hurt my child, my beautiful boy. I would have swung the plough into my own feet, and cut them into ribbons before I hurt our son or let the Argives take me away from here. The pain would have been terrible but fleeting. They would certainly have thought you mad if you had slashed at your own flesh. And even if they had their doubts, they could hardly have taken you on board their ships with your feet spewing blood. A man who cannot stand cannot fight.

Still, it is easy to be wise after the event, isn’t it? I said I didn’t blame you for what has happened, and I don’t. You did the best you could with a phalanx of men watching your every move. And it was nearly enough. But you have been gone too long, Odysseus, and it is time for you to come home.

Your loving wife,

Penelope

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A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is out now. Order your copy here and rewatch her Hay Festival Digital event here.