The Odyssey: an untold story

Every once in awhile you’re lucky enough to find two books, written by two different authors, that so perfectly compliment each other they should have been sequels. I found that in The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona. I read Song of Achilles first and loved it so much I couldn’t quite drag myself out of the world of the Odyssey, not yet. So I picked up Penelope’s Daughter and dove right back in. And I’m so glad I did. While Song of Achilles covers the war in Troy (caused by the beautiful Helen of Sparta), Penelope’s Daughter focuses on what happens back in Ithaca. Together these books tell the whole story of the Odyssey from perspectives that Homer hadn’t considered. What Achilles lacked Penelope’s Daughter fulfilled and vice versa.

I will assume you probably know the story of the OdysseyHelen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in all the world, is whisked off to Troy by Paris. Her husband, Menelaus, becomes enraged and puts together an army to sail to Troy and take her back. Among the warriors is Odysseus, the star of the Odyssey, who is most famous for taking 10 years to sail back from Troy (where the war had gone on 10 years already). He encounters sirens and cyclopes and endures the wrath of the Gods. When he finally returns to Ithaca he finds his house overrun with suitors for his wife, Penelope. Also among the warriors is Achilles, this is his story.

The Song of Achilles is told from the perspective of Patroclus, a young Prince. When Patroclus is exiled from his home for accidentally murdering Clysonymus, he is sent to Phthia to serve Achilles and his family. Achilles sees something in Patroclus that intrigues him and he chooses the exile as his companion. As the boys grow older they grow closer and closer, Achilles begins to view Patroclus as his equal and Patroclus admires Achilles in every way. When they reach the age of manhood they discover that the bond they share goes much further than simple boyish companionship. While it was normal for Princes to take slave boys for lovers, it was not exactly normal to fall in love with another man. Achilles had responsibilities; he was supposed to take a wife and raise heirs… he was also destined to become the greatest warrior the world had ever seen, greater even than the Gods themselves. But all Achilles wants to do is spend his time with Patroclus, and to keep him from harm. Eventually Achilles is called to duty, to fight in the war at Troy, to take Helen back. It is prophesized that the war cannot be won without him. From there the boys must face challenges both to their relationship and their lives. Hardly old enough to be considered men (especially by today’s standards) they struggle with their childish morals, they struggle to keep each other safe, and they struggle to portray Achilles as the demigod he is supposed to be. Overall The Song of Achilles is a beautiful love story, a coming-of-age epic, and a historical retelling that will leave you yearning for more.

If that is the case and you are yearning for more, you’ll find it in Penelope’s Daughter. According to Laurel Corona, Penelope was newly pregnant when Odysseus left and she soon gave birth to Xanthe; a daughter who grew up hearing the brave tales of her father but couldn’t escape the thought that he didn’t even know she existed. When the war finally ends and Odysseus still doesn’t return their palace is overrun with suitors; nasty men looking for a chance to take over the palace in any way they can. Xanthe’s brother isn’t strong enough or manly enough to rule on his own, nonetheless run the household. Penelope can only rule as long as Odysseus is alive, and people are beginning to doubt that he is. In order to keep Xanthe safe Penelope sends her off to Sparta to stay with Helen, the woman who caused the war. Xanthe resents Helen already, for taking away her father before she ever got to meet him, and dreads her stay in Sparta. Instead, what she finds is a humble, caring, and broken woman who will teach her all there is to know about life, love, and becoming a woman in a world ruled by men.

Together these books covered all the unknown aspects of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective to Helen’s to Achilles’. They gave the famous epic a sense true human emotion and a refreshing backstory. I don’t know if I can ever think of the Illiad or the Odyssey and their famous characters in the same way again.

P.S. StarStarStarStarStar both books.

Note: I tried to hyperlink all the important names and stories, I find mythology fascinating and spent about 3 hours reading up on this stuff on Wikipedia. As is always the case with Wikipedia I stopped when I reached a page about “tarantula hawks.” Be careful with Wikipedia, it can be a dangerous place.

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