People in myths live forever — or do they? For every Apollo or Persephone, there are the women and men whose lives these famous deities intersect in the telling of the tale — but who otherwise fall from the page, and from thought. Can they be resurrected? Katharine Beutner thinks it’s possible, and sets to doing so with Alcestis, her debut novel. Who is Alcestis and why does she deserve another look? Beutner explains all.
My Big Idea was to stick myself with the task of retelling a myth many people aren’t aware of in the first place. Alcestis was Mycenaean royalty—her grandfather was the god Poseidon, and one of her sons joined the group of warriors waiting inside the Trojan horse—but she’s remembered largely as a model of the perfectly self-sacrificing wife. She chooses to go to the underworld in her husband’s place when the god Hermes comes to retrieve him; three days later, she’s rescued by Heracles, and brought home to the world above, silent, where she’s celebrated for her virtue. In most versions of the myth, that’s all we ever learn about her, even though she is, to the best of my knowledge, the only female figure in classical mythology who enters the underworld on purpose.
You might say I began writing this novel with a big question, then, rather than a big idea: why would Alcestis choose to die? I wasn’t satisfied with the traditional explanation of selfless wifely devotion, and when I first read Euripides’ version of her story, I was frustrated by how easily the play dismissed Alcestis’s heroism. (Also, I kind of wanted to punch both Heracles and Alcestis’s husband Admetus.) I’d first encountered Alcestis in Rainer Maria Rilke’s gorgeous poem “Alkestis,” which ends with her disappearance. That poem gives Alcestis dignity and grace but also chooses not to portray her experience directly. My novel follows Alcestis from her childhood through her time in the underworld, where she falls under the power of the goddess Persephone.
Any story about a living woman entering the realm of death is inherently fantastical, and I drew inspiration from some of my favorite fantasy novels, such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. Yet I conceived of this book as not only historical fantasy but also a kind of first-contact novel. I wanted to describe what it would it be like, as a human who grew up in that god-haunted world, to face the gods’ alien capriciousness firsthand, and to find your life tangled up with theirs in the way you’d only heard about in songs. In the underworld, Alcestis seeks her sister Hippothoe, who died when they were both children; she also finds herself captivated by Persephone’s passionate interest in her. All of Alcestis’s actions are shaped by her culture and her training as a royal daughter of Iolcus, but she’s woefully out of her depth, despite her own Olympic blood. Despite growing up in a society molded by the interference of gods, she has little notion of how to handle a goddess and even less idea how to resist one.
And that brings me to a second big question: what happens to the usual structure of the mythic romance if that romance involves two women? In one of my high school English classes, a favorite teacher of mine described Odysseus’s entanglements with Circe and Calypso by shrugging and noting that, in the world of the Greek epic, “goddesses happen.” The traditional myth of Alcestis makes clear that her husband Admetus earns his special dispensation from death because he is a favorite of Apollo. I kept that element of the myth and paired it with Persephone’s pursuit of Alcestis. In my version of Mycenaean Greece, goddesses happen to women as well as men.
I aimed to give Alcestis her own epic tale, one as dramatic as the stories of Odysseus, Aeneas, or Orpheus. But I also wanted her to be accessible to contemporary readers of historical fiction and fantasy. In the original myth, Alcestis is supposed to represent the ideal of Greek womanhood, but not because of any special abilities or magical inheritance (unlike Achilles, that big cheater). I’ve tried to preserve a sense of her as a real and ordinary person, to allow readers to enter her world as immersively as she enters the underworld and to fully experience her strange, remarkable, too-little-known story.
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