Atalanta: The heroic story of the only female Argonaut by Jennifer Saint

Publisher: Wildfire Publication

Publication Date: April 2023

I had previously read and loved ‘Elektra’ by Jennifer Saint, a reworking and exploration of female figures from Greek mythology such as Clytemnestra, Cassandra and, of course, Elektra herself. This book worked to bring them back to life in really compelling and interesting ways, shifting the lens from male action and agency to the representation of characters that had been previously underrepresented. So from this experience, I was really looking forward to ‘Atalanta’ which was again looking to give a voice back to the titular character who felt so obscure in my own mind.

It did not disappoint. Before reading the book, I had very little knowledge of her character, however despite this the reading of her story was both compelling and awe inspiring. In fact, I tried to resist the urge to go away and research more about her as I was reading the book for fear that I would discover the resolution before I myself had finished the book.

The novel begins with the young Atalanta’s birth and subsequent abandonment by her father who was disappointed at the fact she was not his intended male heir. Left at the foot of Mount Parthenion to die in the wilderness, death was not her fate. She is taken in by Artemis, goddess of the hunt who gives her to a bear to be raised alongside bear cubs. It is because of this Atalanta  becomes ‘strong on bear milk’ learning both survival skills and obtains a proficiency at hunting, skills that were already innate within her very being. She quickly outruns the nymphs whom she lives alongside as she grows and her physical prowess becomes unbeaten. It is because of these skills that Artemis tells her to go on a quest with the Argonauts, a band of Greek heroes, to seek out the highly coveted golden fleece.

Atalanta sees the quest as part of her destiny, a quest that will be perilous but also one that promises great glory and honour. The narrative then follows Atalanta as she leaves the forest where she has spent her entire early life. Navigating the treacherous environment as well as having to earn acceptance as an equal amongst the Argonauts, many of whom are reluctant to have a woman on board and are blinkered by the rigid perceptions of gender. Many eventually do come to realise that Atalanta is a worthy companion on the quest and she becomes an integral part of the group, not least their leader Jason who is tormented by his own insecurities. Not only does she have to contend with this ingrained misogyny but also she acknowledges how precarious their journey is due to the whimsical and selfish attitudes of the Gods with their ultimate disregard for the lives of humans. She is given by Saint an insight into the reality of the world around her, ‘Jason thought the world was built for heroes, I knew we had to build it ourselves.’

The writer brings to the fore a character that was consigned to being on the fringes of one of the most famous stories of Greek myth. Despite the trials and tribulations she faces on her journey, she is formidable and strong. A force that the men soon realise is undeniable and unconquerable. The relationships she fosters with Meleager and Hippomenes, two individuals who have their own reasons for attempting the quest, worked to show her humanity and her complexity. She moves from the page to become a fully rounded character, a character that will be rightly remembered.

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