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Troy Story – Birmingham Literature Festival

Natalie Haynes is an English writer, broadcaster and comedian known for her BBC Radio Four show; Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics which will be available as a podcast on BBC Sounds this December.

As part of the Birmingham Literature Festival, classicist Natalie Haynes delved deep into the Greek Myths in her show Troy Story which is in conjunction with the release on her book A Thousand Ships which takes its name from the saying that Helen of Troy had “a face that launched a thousand ships.”

Natalie Haynes who was born and raised in Birmingham thanked the audience for having her home and after taking a swig of Diet Coke, joked that it was the 48th day of her tour so she now runs entirely on Percy Pig sweets and caffeinated drinks.

Then the show began. A fast-paced and hilarious dialogue, jam-packed with knowledge of the Greek myths. Haynes focussed first on the Trojan War and in particular the Trojan Horse which is one of the key phrases from these myths (along with Achilles heel) which has entered our modern-day vocabulary.

Then, Natalie Haynes moved on to discuss Helen of Troy, who again is another well-known part of the story. It is because Paris takes Helen from Sparta that her husband, Menelaus, starts the war and launches a thousand ships to return the woman who is allegedly the most beautiful in the world. Despite being just as much to blame, Paris seems to get away with his actions, while Helen is often saddled with the brunt of the blame for the Trojan War explained Haynes. She also added there is, in fact, another version of the story in which Helen does not go to Troy but instead goes to Egypt and is completely blameless, however, this story is less told.

Coming at the classics from a feminist viewpoint, Natalie Haynes used her show to point out that the Greek myths have very much become seen as male oriented stories, with women used merely as plot points. To prove her point, Haynes used the example of The Judgement of Paris in which Zeus appoints Paris the judge of which goddess is the most beautiful. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are fighting over an apple which has been thrown at the wedding of a third goddess, and to decide who gets it Paris is asked to choose the most beautiful. Despite being a story filled with female characters, this tale gets its name from one male character in it.  “Sometimes it’s how we tell these stories, and that’s how we end up thinking these are men’s stories,” explained Natalie Haynes.

Next in the show, Natalie Haynes gave quick, brief and amusing summaries of all 24 books in The Iliad. Timed by an audience member, so that Haynes could see if it would work for the radio show, she ploughed through the myths with speed and brilliance. Slowing a moment to joke that the Iliad, due to one particular conversation between two women, actually passes the Bechdel Test and for this reason “Homer was ahead of the curve.”

As Natalie Haynes drew book 24 of The Iliad to a close, the event too was nearing its end. There was just time left for a reading from the book, from the first chapter in the book ‘Calliope’ the muse of epic poetry, which Haynes wrote in answer to Homer’s famous invocation – “Sing, Muse.”

“Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear this is not a request. If I were minded to accede to his wish, I might say that he sharpens his tone on my name, like a warrior drawing his dagger across a whetstone, preparing for the morning’s battle.”

Natalie Haynes’ show Troy Story was thoroughly entertaining, interesting, educational, funny, and feminist. The evening was a showcase of Natalie Haynes’ knowledge as a “classicist for life” and it was full of jokes about spoilers, 80s television, sexual fantasies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Natalie Haynes presented the Greek myths is a completely unique and refreshing way, leaving me excited to read her book, A Thousand Ships, which is out now.

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