Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Review by Annabel

Over recent years, I have been much enjoying the current vogue for the retelling of ancient myths and ancient history, especially those told from different perspectives, primarily feminist ones. They then tend to divide into two types, those which run with the myth but in a contemporary or new setting, and those that stay with the original. We’ve featured a few of the latter type in Shiny, including the first part of Elodie Harper’s Pompeii series – The Wolf Den, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls

Saint’s debut novel is a feminist retelling of the myth of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, told in its original setting with Ariadne narrating her own story.

Strange, although loving a Greek myth, I’d never realised there was more to Ariadne’s story beyond helping Theseus outwit the labyrinth to kill the minotaur. I have heard of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, but had never associated it as being that Ariadne, which of course it is.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Also, if I’d known that the Titian painting to your left was called Bacchus and Ariadne, (as used on the cover of 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet by the Crash Test Dummies), it would also have been clearer. I was thus delighted to discover that Ariadne’s story goes beyond the labyrinth. 

It begins with her explaining the result of the feud her father, Minos, has with Athens after his son was killed there.

It wasn’t wealth or power that Minos sought from Athens, however. It was a tribute – seven Athenian youths and seven Athenian maidens brought every year across the waves to Crete to sate the appetite of the monstrosity that had threatened to shatter my family with shame but instead had elevated us to the status of legends. The creature whose bellows would make the floors of our palace rumble and shake as the time grew near for his annual feeding despite his burial far below the ground in the centre of a twilight labyrinth so dizzying that no one who entered could ever find their way back to daylight again.

A labyrinth to which only I held the key.

A labyrinth which housed what was at once Minos’ greatest humiliation and greatest asset.

My brother, the Minotaur.

The labyrinth was designed by Daedalus–another figure of legend–craftsman and engineer, essentially kept captive by Minos and looked up to as a mentor by Ariadne. The minotaur imprisoned within is actually her half-brother Asterion, the result of a curse by Poseidon on her mother Pasiphae to fall in lust with a beautiful bull, as revenge for a bargain not kept by Minos. The gods are brutal in their punishments, Minos can’t look at his wife now. As a hybrid child, Asterion grew faster and stronger than a human, and soon had to be confined to the labyrinth. Meanwhile, Minos got the last laugh on Poseidon, delighting in his ‘Minotaur’, the weapon unwittingly granted him by Poseidon. In Saint’s retelling, life in the Cretan palace is stressful for all, but is mounting for Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra, who will have to bow to duty soon enough. 

When Ariadne is eighteen, the year’s ships from Athens arrive bearing the tribute. Theseus, a prince of Athens, is part of the tribute, offering himself in order to end it, but  really hoping to slay the minotaur somehow. Also arrived is Cinyras of Cyprus, who is to be wed to Ariadne; a political union, naturally. However, once she sees Theseus, she is smitten.

The cold green of his eyes. Like the shock of the chill waters when the sea floor drops away unexpectedly beneath your feet and you realise that you have swum out far beyond your depth.

I just loved that description, and that word ‘cold’ sets things up for the betrayal to come, leading to Theseus abandoning her on the island of Naxos. Theseus tells Minos Ariadne is dead, and becomes affianced to her sister Phaedra, who will travel to Athens once she comes of age, betraying her once again. 

She manages to survive on the island for some time, until a ship arrives bearing an Olympian god, Dionysus, whose home Naxos is. He lives in a palace there which masquerades as the cottage where she was abandoned. Surprised to see her, he befriends Ariadne and they fall in love, so a new chapter begins for the princess. She has a bucolic life on Naxos, raising a host of children with Dionysus, but life is not all a bed of roses. 

Dionysus, although he always returns, does like to travel, driven to cultivate more followers, including the Maenads whom he brings back to the island. Ariadne doesn’t take part in the Dionysian rites he and the Maenads perform up in the hills, but his Olympian appetite for more recognition and power does cause a rift between the couple, as the rites get more extreme and bloody (this was known as ‘sparagmos’ – see more on that here). 

Later, there will be a reunion between the two sisters, but when Ariadne discovers the truth, it’s not a happy meeting. Ariadne’s ending is not a happy one either for, despite her many years with Dionysus, she will end up as collateral damage in his war with Perseus. 

Saint’s portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters is done really well, as you’d hope from the female-centred narrative. Initially, they are big and little sister with Phaedra always wanting to be with her older sibling. Later, they have a troubled relationship after the various levels of betrayal and economies of truth that have fallen their way due to the menfolk in their lives.

In Saint’s hands Dionysus is a particularly interesting character. Being immortal and all that that means, the reader does have sympathy for him. He does genuinely love Ariadne and his children with her, which was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. Theseus, naturally, went down in my previous estimation. However, though he betrayed Ariadne and her sister, arguably, by abandoning her on Naxos, he saved her from marrying the dissolute Cinyras. Life with Dionysus was always going to be interesting, even if she rarely left the island!

Jennifer Saint’s retelling is a straight-forward one, pulling various strands of the myths surrounding Ariadne into one coherent narrative, told from the female perspective. I really enjoyed it and look forward to the author’s next book–another myth retold—that of Elektra.

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors. Her personal blog is at AnnaBookBel.

Jennifer Saint, Ariadne (Wildfire, 2021). 978-1472273901, 400 pp.paperback. 

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).

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Comments

  1. I agree with you – the recent retelling of myths are hugely enjoyable (and, in my case, often very educational!) Great review as ever Annabel!

  2. I have a copy if this but was hesitant to read it because I have little knowledge of the myth so thought I’d be at a disadvantage. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Prior knowledge isn’t essential?

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