These Great Athenians by Valentine Carter
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These Great Athenians by Valentine Carter

7th October 2021

A beguiling mix of
verse and storytelling -
These Great Athenians
by Valentine Carter

These Great Athenians by Valentine Carter

Valentine Carter’s debut novella These Great Athenians gives poetic voice to the mostly forgotten and maligned female characters of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, where the stories of the women have always been mysterious and unfinished. They never communicate with each other. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, rules in her husband’s absence, surrounded by a house full of men demanding that she marries one of them. There is also Circe, who turns men into animals and the great goddess Athena, who can do anything and go anywhere. Scylla is a beautiful nymph turned sea-monster who eats men. What is striking is that none of these women speak to each other in The Odyssey. They are friendless and ultimately powerless. Carter thrillingly imagines what if these women were friends, or enemies, and if they did meet, what would they talk about? 

Especially for Foyles Carter has written a blog giving great insight into their work, and the ginnings of their own fascinating journey into the world of mythology and overlooked voices

On Each Myth Being an Odyssey

By Valentine Carter


My first introduction to mythology was The Faber Book of Greek Legends. I discovered it in the village library, which was evocatively housed in a portacabin, and renewed the book repeatedly until someone else had the audacity to request it. At this point I don’t think I was aware that they were different interpretations or small sections of longer works adapted to the short story form. The Odyssey was included in that book, but only as a very truncated reworking of Circe’s passages. But it is the retelling of myth that is essential to what these myths are and how we find meaning in them. Those versions retold for children, now sadly out of print, are an important part of a myth’s narrative constellation.


Even the old Penguin classics version of The Odyssey or Emily Wilson’s vivid and deftly loyal translation are already many times removed from the original text.  Over two thousand years ago, when manuscripts were shipped to the great library of Alexandria for preservation, the librarians there rewrote some sections so they would be considered more appropriate to Alexandrian society. If we are reading the myth in the English language, we also have to consider these versions as translations, moving us yet further from the notional original. But this is part of the joy of mythology. Myths are told by many voices, in many ways and those voices sound different depending on where – and when – they are from.


Because I was the kind of kid who was left to their own devices, and because I spent a lot of time with my head either in a book or in the clouds, I was already way back then making up my own versions of the Greek myths. I fixed things I didn’t like, I stood in for characters and did things the way I thought they should be done. I made gender an irrelevance. I championed the underdog. My Trojans rumbled the wooden horse. I am not too proud to tell you that I galloped above the fields on Pegasus, only returning him to the stars when I had to come in for tea. Which was fine, because everyone has very regular mealtimes in the myths too, it’s a formal part of the structure of the epic poems.


One of the things I liked most about my story book of Greek myths was that all the people in them were, like me, at odds with the world in which they found themselves. How, they wondered, had they landed there, and what they were supposed to do now they had? Where I had come from, where was I and where I was going were all questions that concerned me. To put it more simply: What is my past? What is my present? And what do the past and the present tell me about my future? An answer to all those questions might mean you have the answer to another question: Who am I? This is the principal business of myth.


These questions open up spaces, and there is a home in these myths for people who aren’t living comfortably in the society that we all find ourselves in. In The Odyssey there are women who live important moments more easily as men, humans who turn into animals, gods who can transport themselves halfway around the world in the blink of an eye. Everything is different and everything is possible. This home in myth is, as in the real world, hard fought for. It is a way of seeing things in a different way. The existence of this difference is not something everyone notices. But I think that one way we can all learn more about how other people see the world and how they must therefore live in it, perhaps most importantly how that feels and how it can chaff, is through storytelling.


One way of doing this is by thinking radically about the stories of Greek Mythology and the characters that populate them. I think it’s important that we do this. Myths are concerned with what the past and the present can tell us about the future. Perhaps we should consider whether we have reached a point where the old ways of telling these stories no longer reflect our present. Should we continue to allow these stories to peddle nonsense like sex sways all women’s minds (Book 15: 421), or slaves are lucky (Book 15: 448), unchallenged or unopposed? I think we need to take responsibility for these ideas, now more than ever.


In her beautiful Autobiography of Red Anne Carson takes the character of Geryon, a red, winged giant and recasts him so he becomes a kind of embodied metaphor. In her book, also a novel in verse, Geryon becomes a moody, arty teenager who falls in love with another young man called Herakles. In the source myth Geryon is killed by Heracles as part of his ten labours. Herakles could also, both literally and euphemistically, be the death of Geryon in Autobiography of Red and as such the book tells us much about the way we live and how connection are forged across time. It’s one of my favourite retellings because it is at once respectful of the source myth in its anachronistic calling back to it, but also aware of how tenuous any authority it has as a source or as a piece of work that is relevant to us now – or more specifically to me now.


Perhaps it’s the poetic form of the source texts that attracts poets to mythology. The dactylic hexameter of epic poetry is certainly a fascinating puzzle and often, in a great translation such as Emily Wilson’s, sits in wonderful contrast to the extraordinary violence of myths. Alice Oswald’s Memorial retells The Illiad by focusing on every soldier who is killed, one after the other. It is, as you might expect from a classicist, almost unbearably insightful in its minutest details, somehow bringing all of Homer and giving us something new. A different lens. This is poetry and storytelling as life force. As a vital reminder of what endures perhaps because it must. But also, I think, to suggest that remembering is an act of discovery; not of creating a monument but rather creating momentum.


The stories that most interest me in The Odyssey are those of the women who struggle in the world of men in their different ways. Madeline Miller retells the story of one of my favourite characters, Circe. This is perhaps a more traditional retelling in that the narrative threads pulled from Circe’s appearance in a number of stories, not just The Odyssey are expertly woven together. One of Circe’s stories which also appears in These Great Athenians, because I find it fascinating, is the one in which she turns Scylla into the sea monster. It’s this form she appears as in The Odyssey. Miller is, like Oswald, a classicist and reminds us that the characters in mythology have multiple stories and interpretation even in those text which I’m calling ‘source texts’ so I don’t have to incorrectly describe them as ‘original’. The lives of Scylla, Circe and Penelope are richer than they appear in The Odyssey.


I’m attracted to these retellings in particular because, for me, they are asking questions about the past, the present and therefore the future. Mythology is both a mirror and map, showing us who we are and where we might go. I retold passages of The Odyssey as a way of interrogating that question: Who am I? It’s the same question I find in Autobiography or Red, Memorial and Circe. I think that’s what stories, good stories, those stories that stick to our own selves like glue, do. And perhaps if enough individuals try to find an answer to that question, in whatever type of story they please, we can answer another, perhaps better question: who are we?


Valentine Carter

Valentine Carter grew up in a small village, escaped to the capital and now lives by the sea. They recently completed an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where they are now studying for a PhD. Valentine has short fiction published by The Fiction Pool, Bandit Fiction, In Yer Ear and The Mechanics' Institute Review:Issue 15 and Issue 16, and poetry published by Perverse and Visual Verse.


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