“Ariadne” by Jennifer Saint is, at first, a retelling of the Greek myth of Theseus, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. Saint has not written another tale of men performing great feats of bravery and strength, but a portrait of the lives left devastated in their callous wake. The women that fill these pages are painted with an incisive brush, the result of which is female characters that are full of nuance and complexity rarely afforded to historical women. Saint takes a well-known myth that exalts the exploits of men and draws from it a stunning story of female resilience and solidarity.
For those unfamiliar with the myth of Theseus, the basic premise is as follows: Theseus is an Athenian prince and demigod who travels to Crete to slay the minotaur, a monster that dwells in the labyrinth and feasts on live human sacrifices brought from Athens. The princess of Crete, Ariadne, betrays her father to help Theseus on this quest. Theseus, having freed the Athenians from the horror of sacrificing their children, goes on to become the king of Athens and a legendary hero. Even for most of us who know the story, Ariadne fades into obscurity as soon as Theseus is no longer in need of her assistance. Jennifer Saint is determined to change that and carve a place for women among tall tales of men’s heroics and glory.
This book does not shy away from explicitly feminist themes. The early lives of the two female protagonists (Ariadne and her younger sister, Phaedra) are entirely defined by the whims of proud, power-hungry men, from their father King Minos to Poseidon himself. They feel themselves to be little more than tools, important only as a means by which to further the ambitions and desires of men. But though they know themselves to be helpless in the face of the world’s demands, they struggle to resign themselves to this fate. As a young woman, Ariadne swears to never go down without a fight, to never be the broken victim she sees in her mother: “I would be Medusa, if it came to it, I resolved. If the gods… came for me to punish a man’s actions, I would… wear that coronet of snakes, and the world would shrink from me instead.”
It is this resoluteness, then, that motivates her to help Theseus. She isn’t just lovestruck, as is commonly depicted (though she’s certainly that too) — she’s also desperate to claim her own destiny and to escape from under the crushing thumb of her father. She falls hard and fast, not just for Theseus’s handsomeness and bravery, but for the possibilities he presents to her. And though she is foolish in her trust more than once, as she readily admits in hindsight, she is equally fierce in her loyalty to her fellow women and her love and protection of the vulnerable and suffering. This is her strength, and though she does not wield a club to crush monsters or gallivant through cities parading her godly heritage as Theseus does, this strength easily rivals Theseus’s power in its own quiet way. Ariadne develops into a hero in her own right, and in doing so she challenges our assumptions about who and what heroes have to be and want.
Phaedra, on the other hand, is stubborn and daring; if she had been born a boy, she would have been the one slaying monsters. She is determined to make her mark on the world and is incapable of watching as it passes her by, even while she is inexorably relegated to the sphere of hospitality and childcare. Just a girl when the story begins, she, too, finds a way to loosen the ropes that bind her to her lowly station of “woman.” But try as they might, and despite their differences, each sister will learn in turn that they can never truly be free of the constraints of sexism.
“Ariadne” toys with the heart and stomach. Horror, dread and anger — so much anger — are interspersed with relief and joy in a loop that grinds to a halt only in the very last paragraph. Ariadne and Phaedra feel real, even though their life circumstances are so fantastical. They are at once surrounded by gods and magic and torn by the same forces women across the world and throughout time have been burdened with. They know the unsteadiness of finding one’s own two feet and the determination to take fate by the reigns anyway. Horror, dread, anger, relief, joy; Learning, unlearning and relearning to find one’s balance in a world that feels more like a tightrope than solid ground, where a man’s every act could engender a battle to survive.
Jennifer Saint makes no effort to obscure the motivation for this retelling: She writes about women, for women. She tells of their struggles against oppressive systems they have no hope of breaking, and their tenacity to build worthwhile lives for themselves in spite of it all. She gives voice to women that history has turned into side characters and robbed of agency. For nearly 3,000 years, Theseus has been glorified as a hero of legend. Saint gives the women he abandoned their turn.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.