Ariadne Book Review: Do Greek Heroes Stand the Test of Time?

Hello, everyone! Greek mythology is in the midst of a renaissance, with novels like Circe, The Silence of the Girls, and The Song of Achilles re-telling classic myths from a modern perspective. As a girl who was raised on Greek myths, but grew up pondering some of their more twisted elements, I appreciate any novel that strips away the trappings of Greek mythology to lay bare the canon’s obsession with punishment, morality, and misogyny. Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne delivers on that front by re-telling the tale of the Minotaur through his sister’s eyes.

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Can we talk about this beautiful cover?

Synopsis: Daughter of Minos, the king of Crete, and Pasiphaë, the daughter of the sun god Helios, Ariadne lives a cloistered life in the island palace of Knossos with her sister Phaedra. When Minos’ arrogance angers the sea god Poseidon, he curses Pasiphaë to give birth to the monstrous Minotaur, who Minos then uses as a weapon to subdue enemy islands. When the illustrious Theseus comes to Crete as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, Ariadne conspires to help him defeat her brother for good, and sets in motion a series of events that will change her life forever.

My thoughts: I’ve been familiar with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur since I was a child, and I was always struck by the part of the story where Theseus betrays Ariadne by leaving her to starve to death on the island of Naxos. Even though the children’s version of the myth that I grew up on absolves Theseus of any guilt by having him only leave Ariadne on the island at Dionysus’ command, I still thought it was unbearably tragic that Ariadne’s heroism (for it was she who gave Theseus everything he needed to kill the Minotaur) was rewarded with abandonment and a forced marriage to a fickle deity. Could Theseus really be considered a hero worth honoring if his epic feats were built off of the labor and sacrifice of others?

This question serves as the thesis for Saint’s novel, as she examines the heroism of celebrated Greek men and finds them wanting. She begins the novel by speaking of a “righteous man,” Minos of Crete, who conquered the kingdom of Megara after the king’s daughter Scylla fell in love with Minos and revealed to him her father’s fatal weakness. To repay Scylla for her help, Minos “tied the lovesick girl to the back of his boat” and drowned her.

She had betrayed her father and her kingdom, he told me, still glowing with the flush of victory on his return from the defeat of Athens. And what possible use could my father, King Minos of Crete, ever have for a treacherous daughter?

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Scylla’s story sets the tone of the rest of the novel, as Ariadne grapples with the fact that the women of her world are trapped between a rock and hard place, forced either to obey their merciless fathers, or suffer at the capricious hands of violent men. The story of Ariadne’s own mother Pasiphaë, forced to give birth to a monster as punishment for her husband’s sins, and that of Medusa, who was transformed into a monster by Athena after Poseidon raped the beautiful girl in the goddess’ sacred temple, give greater context to Ariadne’s decision to betray her father and help Theseus kill her brother. In the original myth, she is a faceless girl driven only by love for a handsome prince, but in Saint’s novel, Ariadne is driven by a need for freedom and the fear of falling victim to either the schemes of her ruthless father, or the whims of a jealous god.

If you had anything that made you proud, that elevated you beyond your mortal fellows, it seemed to me that the gods would find delight in smashing it into smithereens.

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Saint explores the cruelty of the Greek gods in a way that conventional tellings often seem to erase. In Ariadne, the gods are so far removed from the needs of mortals that they use them as playthings for amusement. Fittingly, the heroes in mythology follow in their beloved deities’ footsteps, leaving trails of destruction behind. The gods’ love of brutality is a key theme in the novel, as Ariadne, and later her sister Phaedra, come to realize that the men that they love seek glory at the expanse of their humanity. Rather than indicting the inherent violence of heroism, however, the novel emphasizes that both the men and women of Greek mythology exist in a society in which violence and deceit are the primary currencies of survival. The gods do not favor gentleness, compassion, or collaboration, therefore creating a system of worship where the heroes of Greek mythology are renowned for their violence, and the women are punished for their perceived weaknesses.

The only god who can seemingly bridge the gap between merciless god and mortal human is Dionysus, who saves Ariadne from certain death on Naxos, and woos her with his kindness and generosity. As a god born to a mortal woman who was tricked by Hera into bringing about her own death, Dionysus uniquely understands how the gods harm the innocent in order to settle their petty squabbles.

“The gods do not know love, because they cannot imagine an end to anything they enjoy. Their passions do not burn brightly as a mortal’s passions do, because they can have whatever they desire for the rest of eternity. How could they cherish or treasure anything? Nothing to them is more than a passing amusement…Their heroes do not know love because they value only what they can measure…They see only fame and are blind to the rewards that only human life can offer, which they simply toss aside like trash.”

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Even as Ariadne grows to trust Dionysus, building a happy home for her and her children on his island, she can never escape the true nature of the gods. Even Dionysus, who claims to abhor the cruelty of his siblings, is not immune to the lure of divine power, and his quest to find more devotees for his island puts Ariadne’s fragile peace at risk. As someone who always believed that Ariadne had somewhat of a happy ending after being left to die on Naxos, I found it eye-opening and upsetting to read the tragic ending of her story. She and her sister Phaedra, whose own myth is given a new spin in the novel, are trapped by the Fates, forced to act out the same tragedies that they have seen play out countless times before.

Even though both sisters attempt to take their lives into their own hands, they are constrained by the rigid rules of their society, and reined in by the desires of the men around them. Some readers complained that Ariadne wasn’t a feminist re-telling of the myth because Ariadne’s life is mostly shaped by the decisions of those around her, but I disagree, as I think Saint’s re-telling works within the realities of the time and gives Ariadne only as much agency as she would have been allowed in the world of Ancient Greece. Reframing the story around Ariadne’s brave decision to betray her father is the ultimate sign of a feminist re-telling, as it’s her decision that sets the rest of the events of the story in motion.

Saint makes a bold choice by centering the story around Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, and in doing so, she wraps up the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in only the first 90 pages. It’s the aftermath of this event that she’s interested in: how the consequences of Ariadne’s decisions lead to the end of an empire, unhappy marriages, and tragic deaths. Saint’s version of Theseus is a man obsessed with glory, a hero who cowardly leaves his bride to die on an island rather than bring her to his city, and a king who would rather indulge in quests than rule his own kingdom. I appreciated Saint’s evisceration of Theseus’ character because I saw him as a stand-in for dozens of other Greek heroes, men like Heracles and Odysseus, who in the pursuit of glory harmed or killed the women in their lives. Even though the novel is about Ariadne, it’s clear that Saint uses her as a lens in which to question the tradition of honoring men who obtain glory in selfish and violent ways. Many of the modern re-tellings of Greek mythology that I have read are fascinated with this question, and Saint’s novel is another admirable critique of the traditional hero narrative.

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