A luminous entryway for readers new to the world of the Greek gods and attendant mortals
ennifer Saint’s debut novel is centred on the myth of Ariadne, the princess of Crete, daughter to the mercurial King Minos and Pasiphae, daughter of the sun-god Helios. In Saint’s retelling for modern readers, Ariadne is given a full, resonant voice, relating a tale brimming with intrigue, betrayal and love. Readers of the novel might be more familiar with Ariadne’s half-bull brother, Asterion, commonly known as the Minotaur. Born to Pasiphae as an act of revenge meted out to Minos by the sea-god Poseidon, the Minotaur lives in an underground labyrinth, his bellows rumbling the floors of the palace, night and day. He has obsessed poets, writers and analysts for centuries. The poet Ovid has, described the Minotaur as a ‘strange hybrid creature.’ The very animal-ity provides the dark heart of Saint’s story.
The Minotaur signifies much in this book; he is a totem of Pasiphae’s sacrifice to maintain her husband’s kingdom, he is terrifying proof of the gods power over mortals. He also serves as the ‘unconscious’ of the kingdom, his labyrinth a black subverted nest, an abattoir for human love and the sensitivity of the humane.
When Ariadne first sees him as an infant, she describes him thus: “Asterion, a distant light in an infinity of darkness; a raging fire if you came too close; a guide that would lead my family on the path to immortality; a divine vengeance upon us all.”
“I did not yet know then”, she says, “what he would become. But my mother held him and nursed him, and he knew us both. He was not yet the Minotaur. He was just a baby. He was my brother.” Further on, we will see this sisterly tenderness crumbling and manifesting into a complex emotional reckoning.
True to the myth, King Minos demands that seven Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens be given to the Minotaur as sacrifice or tribute every nine years. Theseus, a courageous Athenian prince, bravely puts himself forward as one. When Theseus arrives in Crete, Ariadne falls in love with him at first sight. On gaining his confidence, she learns that he has come to kill Asterion. At this juncture, Saint paints a picture of an Ariadne wracked with eviscerating doubt. She knows that in aiding Theseus in killing Asterion, she is betraying not only her father’s kingdom but also the trust of her mother and sister for a relative stranger. However, the force of her newly found ardour completely enraptures Ariadne, and she agrees to help Thesus in gaining ingress to the labyrinth. In return, cloyingly, he promises her a lifetime of love. Ariadne presents him with a ball of thread so that, as he weaves his way through the tiny corridors of the labyrinth, he can unravel the thread on the floor beneath him, allowing him to retrace his journey back out of the maze. After Theseus has killed Asterion, Ariadne flees with him to the island of Naxos, entrusting him with her life. However, Theseus, leaves Ariadne vulnerable – a lone figure on the island.
The betrayal sears through Ariadne. In her outpost of utter loss and helplessness, Ariadne spends her days in desultory walks. She does not “dare explore the island further.” She walks the beach and scans “the flat expanse of the sky.” She notes that hour upon hour, “it remained empty”.
In the chapters detailing Ariadne’s desolation, we are reminded of moments from Ariadne’s past life, especially those with her mother; “In the early days, my mother, Pasiphae, would dance with me; indeed, it was she who had taught me. Not formal, set patterns of steps, rather, she gave me the gift of making fluid, sinuous shapes out of crazy, chaotic movements. She would make a game of it for me, calling out constellations for me to trace with my feet on the floor, star formations that she would weave stories of, as well as dances. ‘Orion’ she’d say, and I would hop frantically from space to space, imagining the points of light that made the doomed hunter in the sky. “
Saint has skillfully portrayed the contrasting halves of Ariadne’s life. Ariadne’s struggle against the absolute power of her father, King Minos, the betrayal of malevolent, treacherous Theseus and her profound courage in loving Dionysus make for an absorbing and lyrical read.
These flashes of light are essential to Saint’s thesis. The women of Minos’s kingdom have carved out culverts of serenity from the terrifying thrall of the palace. Dance is important to Ariadne and to the novel, for it is an intuitive act of play and release. It is how Ariadne and the womenfolk of the palace thrash out the many challenges that befall them. Even the memories of dance are sufficient to whisk Ariadne momentarily away from her suffocating imprisonment on the island.
Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus is heart-rending and absolute. Theseus, as Ariadne assesses, was like Minos. “He] emulated the worst of the immortals: their greed, their ruthlessness, and the endless selfish desires that would overturn the world, as though it were a trinket box, and plunder its contents for a passing whim because they believed it belonged to them anyway.” Ariadne’s resilience impresses us in these moments and is vindicated in the coming chapters. For the god of merriment and pleasure, Dionysus is set to visit the shores of pitiless Naxos.
Saint’s prose is clear and true to the classical narrative. She has an energetic sense of the magical in her writing too, for example, in the passage where Dionysus is first introduced to us, he is fresh from a quarrel with enemy soldiers, turning them to dolphins while locking horns; “The creatures that had been men just a moment ago, rolled across the ship, their mighty tails slapping the wood that human fists had pounded in desperation. Weird yelps and squeaks rose up to me- a melancholy, garbled song. As I watched, the confusion resolved itself all of a sudden into shapes I understood. Around the laughing golden youth, where there had been twelve men, there were twelve dolphins arching their unwieldy, unfamiliar bodies in the abruptly alien air.”
Saint captures not only the intense and reckless charisma of Dionysus in the last excerpt but also the chaotic promise of his being. One can assuredly discern the author’s penetrating knowledge of the classical Greek text through the breadth of the text.
The arrival of Dionysus marks a bold second act in Ariadne’s life. Whereas her infatuation with Theseus was a cold and denigrating burden, her tryst with Dionysus proves a thing of immediate buoyancy. “That night, I slept in an airy chamber heaped with finery. I awoke to a rosy dawn and as I gazed out into the amber light, hope wrestled with doubt in my breast. I knew of gods and their demands, the games they played with mortals and the way they discarded the broken fragments of the humans who adored them. Somehow it seemed that I had encountered a god who demanded nothing of me and gave generously; a god who smiled and laughed like a boy, full of impish charm and merriment; a god who spoke to me like a friend on this strange island where no normal rules applied. I wanted so much to believe that this could be true.”
Dionysus brings with him revelry, humour and relative ease, while also cultivating an emotional bond with Ariadne that enriches her formerly dislocated measure of self. Dionysus is shown to be more than a god of reckless amusement. We see how the story of his birth lends a shadowy ruefulness to his character.
Saint has skillfully portrayed the contrasting halves of Ariadne’s life. Ariadne’s struggle against the absolute power of her father, King Minos, the betrayal of malevolent, treacherous Theseus, and her profound courage in loving Dionysus make for an absorbing and lyrical read. Saint’s book provides a resolute and luminous entryway for readers new to the world of the Greek gods and attendant mortals.
Author: Jennifer Saint
Publisher: Wildfire, 2021
The reviewer is a senior contributing editor at The Aleph Review and a columnist at Libas Now