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Myths are made to be retold. Most come from the oral tradition and are reworked by each new teller, until someone writes a version down. Euripedes wrote down his version of Alcestis’s story some 2500 years ago, and ever since then he’s had the last word. Until now.
Euripedes’ Alcestis is a minor character in her own drama: her husband Admetus, king of Pherae, is the beloved of Apollo. Apollo vows to intercede when the Fates say it’s Admetus’ time to die. The day comes, and Apollo’s gift, it turns out, has a string attached, as gifts from the gods so often do. Admetus can elude Death if he can find someone to take his place. Admetus asks his father and his mother, who refuse. And then Alcestis offers her own life for his. Exit Alcestis.
For the rest of the play, Admetus berates his parents, moans about his loss, and entertains his friend Heracles, who repays Admetus’s hospitality by rescuing Alcestis from Hades. For Euripedes, Admetus is noble, possessed of the Greek virtue of hospitality but with a tragic flaw: he’s animated by his fear of death. He’s a coward, but he’s complicated. The play’s called Alcestis, but it’s all about Admetus.
Now Katharine Beutner gives Alcestis her story back. In the tradition of great retellings like Mary Renault’s The King Must Die or Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia, Beutner helps us re-see the familiar. When Alcestis tells her own story, we see her as a girl queen: a coddled possession, moved around from owner to owner, trapped in various bedchambers. Being a princess isn’t pretty. Beutner brings scholarly rigor and a feminist analysis to her portrayal of life as a royal Greek woman in the Bronze Age.
But we also see Alcestis’s complexity, and this is Beutner’s real achievment. We see her with her sisters, we see her stratagems with her father and husband. Perhaps most unexpectedly, we see her desire. Our Alcestis is dutiful, but Beutner dares to imagine that she might also want her husband: “Sometimes I was still struck by his beauty, hollowed out by it until I went weak and pliable in his arms.”
Of course, it is ancient Greece. You know where this is going. Admetus loves Apollo. Admetus tarries with (mostly male) mortals, sure, but he is in thrall to the god. He’s kind to his very young wife, but he doesn’t love her in quite the same way. When his death day comes, Admetus begs his lover Creon, his father, even his mother to take his place while Alcestis watches horrified. Beutner shows us exactly how Alcestis comes to volunteer, and why. We believe her decision, because we know Alcestis so well, and we’re rewarded with the story no one else has thought to tell for 2500 years: what happens to Alcestis during her three days in Hades, and more importantly, what happens when she meets Persephone.
This is where Alcestis becomes impossible to put down. As Alcestis makes the hero’s journey to the underworld, she finds that she has a quest of her own, complete with obstacles and temptations. Through her relationship with Persephone, she begins to understand her husband’s love for Apollo and her own mortality.
Beutner’s prose is plain but not spare; we believe the ancients spoke this way. She avoids weird or cute anachronisms in both her language and her understanding of her characters. Alcestis is certainly of her time; Beutner just widens our understanding of what that time was like. And Beutner does the hardest thing well: she describes the gods in such a way that we want to both stare and turn away; it’s almost too much.
Alcestis is nobody’s celebratory gayed-up Greek myth (for that, try Ovid). Instead, Beutner’s retelling is resolutely queer: strange, beautiful, ambivalent, sexually fluid, full of human complexity and godly simplicity.
The poet Ricardo Reis (a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa) wrote, “The gods are gods/Because they don’t think/About what they are.” Beutner’s gods are curious and desiring and indifferent; they don’t need to think about what they are. They are most dangerous when they love. But then, as Beutner shows us, so are we.
by Katharine Beutner
Hardcover; $23; 304 pages