Re-tellings of Greek mythology are all the rage at the moment. Some recent forays back into this world include Madeline Miller’s Circe, Colm Tobin’s House of Names, Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. The Miller and Barker books, in particular, seek to put a more feminist, female-centric spin on some familiar tales. It is not as if Greek mythology is not full of female gods usually behaving badly (actually the gods are often behaving badly) but human women often got short shrift in Greek tales. One of those was Ariadne, known for being the woman who fell in love with the hero Theseus and helped him to defeat the Minatour and find his way out of the Labyrinth of Crete.
Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne tells this particular tale as its opening act. She focusses on Ariadne who helped her mother raise her monstrous half brother who became the Minotaur and then is betrothed to a foreign king to further her father Minos’s interests. She falls in love with Theseus, Prince of Athens, who has come as one of fourteen Athenians pledged to be sacrificed to the Minatour, and helps him with a view to escaping with him back to Athens. But Theseus betrays both her and her younger sister Phaedra, leaving Ariadne to die on the island of Naxos and her sister back on Crete.
The remainder of the narrative is split between Ariadne and Phaedra. Ariadne finds that Naxos is the home of the god Dionysus and ends up marrying him. Phaedra, on the other hand, is sent to Athens to marry Theseus, but her childhood fantasies of him are soon dashed. When Ariadne and Phaedra finally reunite years later there is only further tragedy in store.
Retellings of Greek mythology fall in to two camps. There are those in which the gods are left in the background. They are mentioned but play no part in the story. Ariadne is one in which the gods, their jealousies and capriciousness, play a pivotal role in the plot. All of the main characters are descendants of gods or gods themselves and the revenge of the gods is random and terrible. Ariadne finds that despite her deep love of her godly husband and his devotion to her children there is a side of him that she just cannot comprehend.
While this is a ‘feminist’ retelling of these myths, Saint cannot escape from the trajectory of the stories that she is telling without completely reinventing them. Phaedra, for all of the agency that she gains as Queen of Athens while Theseus is away fighting monsters, is still broken by the relationship. Ariadne finds what she thinks is contentment on her island but does so by ignoring the danger signs around her immortal husband.
Ariadne does not grab the reader in quite the same way as some of the other recent explorations of Greek mythology. Saint makes heavy going in the first part of the story, even though this is the tale that will be most familiar to most readers. But the story picks up through the second part where deeper themes emerge out of the parallel relationships of Theseus and Phaedra and Ariadne and Dionysus. This is then followed by the descent into the tragedy that seems to await many women in Greek mythology.
Greek mythology is clearly making a comeback. It is full of tales that are rich in character and conflict and open to new interpretations and points of view. Ariadne, while not the best of these, does bring not only a well known story to life, but also other parts of the stories of its protagonists that are unlikely to be as widely known to the general readership. And it does so in a way that more deeply explores timeless issues of human relationships which have formed the heart of literature since before even these stories were originally told.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Maidens (Alex Michaelides) – book review
- Greenwood (Michael Christie) – book review
- Saint X (Alexis Schaitkin) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.