Elena Douglas’ fascination with the Iliad began when she was 8 years old and her mother read her a children’s version during a summer spent in the White Mountains. When she was older and read the unabridged version for herself, she latched on to the character Briseis. In the Iliad, Briseis becomes the concubine of the hero Achilles and is the subject of an epic fight between Achilles and King Agamemnon. Despite being the subject of drama and turmoil, Briseis herself has little to do in the original text. In her novel Warrior’s Prize, Douglas sets out to pull Briseis from the shadows, exploring the terrifying prospect of becoming a spoil of war, ripped from her home to live with the man who killed her husband:
- “Maira was torn from my grip, but I managed a quick hug and begged Nesaia to look after her. Then I stood alone on the shore, watching them go toward the smaller of the two remaining ships. These women were all that was left of my life. Most were young wives like me. We’d shared companionable hours over the washing at the spring. Mostly they talked and I listened to their tales of how to remove stains from clothes, or the best way to cook beans, or the difficulties of childbirth, or even sometimes, guardedly, how to keep a husband happy. We’d shared stories and toil, laughter and tears. Being a part of their pain would have eased my own. Their company would have lessened my fear. But Achilleus had taken even this from me.”
Kirkus Reviews writes that, “in making Briseis the hero of her story, Douglas skillfully gives center stage to women who are mostly silent pawns or invisible in the Iliad and most texts inspired by it,” and calls Warrior’s Prize “a carefully crafted tale that offers a fresh, woman-centered reevaluation of an ancient story.”
Douglas, who lives with her husband in Berkeley, California, knew for years that she wanted to write Warrior’s Prize. She was immediately taken with Briseis, though despite being one of the richest texts in history, the Iliad itself didn’t give her much to go on. “Reading the full Iliad was a mind-changer,” says Douglas. “It’s one of my ‘desert island’ books. The characters are so developed, it’s almost like reading a modern novel. But Briseis is just in the background while the whole plot revolves around her!”
Therefore, Douglas’ task as a reader and as an author was to put together what Briseis might have been thinking and feeling. But it took nine years of writer’s block to get there. “Her story was just begging to be told,” says Douglas. “But the big problem [in] writing about Briseis is that she’s offstage for all the action. So I had this passive protagonist, and I had to work and work to make her active.”
Douglas’ biggest hurdle in the task to make Briseis an active protagonist was that for the most climactic moment in her story—the death of Patroclus—Briseis is not physically present. And, of course, it didn’t help that Douglas had her own life to live, with her own children to put through college with all the financial aid forms and bureaucracy that come with that, to say nothing of her teaching career. “I’d say to myself, You’re calling yourself a writer, but you’re not! Forget it!” But Douglas refused to give in to the little voice telling her to quit until finally, she figured out how to solve her problem around Patroclus’ death.
Readers will have to pick up a copy of Warrior’s Prize to learn how Douglas untangled that knot, but she says that once she found her solution, she “couldn’t stop writing” and had to take a paper and pen with her everywhere to write down her overflowing thoughts. Douglas doesn’t claim that she was able to keep up the faith the whole time during that decade of writer’s block, but when she at last came up with a solution that would allow her to finish the story, she had “an incredible feeling of wonder and relief.”
Briseis’ difficult lot in life—captured by her enemies, taken as a prize, and fought over like an object—leaves plenty to explore. Douglas was particularly interested in two themes. The first was how and why Briseis’ feelings toward Achilles might evolve over time. How do you fall in love with someone who has killed members of your family in war? And the second was what Douglas describes as “the age-old conflict between men and women everywhere: the man’s desire for achievement or fame or wealth or glory, while the woman, caring for none of those things, wants above all else to have a home and a man’s protection in order to raise her children.”
But throughout Briseis’ conflicts with the various men who control her life, Douglas never loses sight of what brought her to Briseis in the first place: the lack of agency for the women of the Iliad. Briseis encounters other famous women like Andromache and Helen of Troy, but this time with Douglas’ imagination filling out their inner lives and likely alliances and grudges. Kirkus notes that Douglas’ take on the Iliad “adds emotional heft to the bare bones of a foundational work of Western literature.”
Fans of Douglas’ interpretation have another novel inspired by the classics to look forward to. She actually wrote an entirely different novel while researching Warrior’s Prize. That novel, Shadow of Athena, centers on a mysterious ritual in honor of the goddess Athena. And Douglas is working on a memoir that will describe her colorful childhood, including that fateful summer when she first met Briseis.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.