Oedipus, Bilbo Baggins and Atreyu – Deadly riddles and Sphinxes in Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story”

From Sphinxes to Hobbits, from the ancient world to children’s fantasy,  Michael Kleu takes a look at the riddling tradition in Tolkien, Ende, and Apollodorus…

When Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of J.R.R.Tolkien’s  The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937), got lost in the cave system and tunnels of the Misty Mountains, he found by chance – or rather by fate – the One Ring, a powerful magical artefact crafted by the evil entity Sauron a long time previously. Shortly afterwards, Bilbo met the strange creature Gollum, who challenged him to a game of riddles. If Bilbo won the game, Gollum was supposed to show the little Hobbit a way out of the tunnels. If the creature won the game, it could eat poor Bilbo. Lost and alone, Bilbo had no choice but to agree to Gollum’s terms. After the opponents had played the game for some rounds the Hobbit won the contest by asking what he had in his pocket. Since Gollum, of course, had no chance to know that Bilbo had pocketed the One Ring, the Hobbit won the game of riddles in a rather unfair fashion and could only escape the creature’s rage by accidentally using the magic ring, that made him invisible.

In Greek mythology something quite similar had happened to Oedipus. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, had promised the throne of Thebes and the hand of his sister Jocasta to anyone who would free the city from theSphinx, a creature that lived close to the city and strangled and swallowed all travelers that couldn’t solve her famous puzzle:

“What is it that speaks with one single voice and has first four, then two and finally three legs?”

Oedipus accepted the challenge and solved the Sphinx’s riddle: As a child a human first crawls on all fours, before he walks on two legs and finally needs a supporting stick in the old age. After having heard the correct answer, the Sphinx committed suicide by jumping from a rock. Thebes was freed, and Oedipus became king (Apollod. 3,5,8).

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin, CC BY-SA 2.0

In both cases an unhuman creature threatens a hero with death if he cannot solve its riddle and in both cases the creature will eat the hero if he fails. But there is one more parallel. At some point during the game it is Bilbo’s turn to come up with a riddle:

“No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.”

Gollum doesn’t need long to find the solution: “Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bone.”

Although the parallel to the riddle of the sphinx is striking, it seems to be another tradition to which J.R.R. Tolkien is referring here. In a German book from 1847 I found a quite similar riddle in several versions in German and English language:

“Two legs sat upon three legs, with one leg in his lap. In comes four legs, and runs away with one leg. Up jumps two legs, catches up three legs, throws it after four legs, and maks (sic!) him bring back one leg.”[1]  xx

(In this case two legs is a man, three legs a three-legged stool, four legs a dog and one leg a walking stick.)  Here the parallel is even more striking and indeed Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publisher (letter no.110) that he did not invent this particular riddle but took it from somewhere, (unfortunately he did not mention from where exactly).[2]  Therefore, he obviously did not directly adapt the riddle of the sphinx. Nevertheless, the leg-riddle from 1847 might belong to a category of riddles that goes back to the myth of Oedipus.[3]

Of course, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Nordic and Germanic traditions. Thus, his riddles were surely influenced by the Exeter Book and other collections of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of riddling as well as of the Alvíssmál, a poem collected in thePoetic Edda.[4] On the other hand, even when it has been only for a short time,Tolkien had studied Classics in Exeter and was definitely familiar with Greek and Latin literature. Therefore, it seems still quite possible that at least regarding the hero being threatened to be eaten by an unhuman creature if he fails to win a riddle contest, Tolkien was influenced by the myth of Oedipus.

Picture: Michael Kleu

In Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979) the black centaur Cairon, who is the most famous physician in the magical land of Fantastica and therefore a clear reference to Chiron is a first indication that the author used elements of Greek myths for his book. And as we will see know, Ende’s story was very concretely influenced by the myth of Oedipus. To reach the so-called Southern Oracle, the hero Atreyu is supposed to pass a way between two Sphinxes facing each other. This is only possible when the eyes of the Sphinxes are closed because a traveler will freeze if he is caught by their gaze, since the eyes of the Sphinxes ask by nonverbal communication all known riddles at the same time and the passerby can only move after having solved all of them, what eventually leads to the death of the people concerned.

The oracle is of course a fixed element in Greek myth and the Delphic Oracle is of major importance for Oedipus’s fate. Furthermore, the freezing of the passerby evokes references to Medusa. Therefore, Ende has mixed some well-known elements of Greek mythology to create a new story. On the other hand, it is quite interesting that Atreyu has no chance to pass the Sphinxes with the help of his own skills, wits or abilities. In fact, it seems to depend on pure chance or fate if someone can pass the Sphinxes or not. At least the gnome Engywook, who is Fantastica’s leading scientist in this field, even after many years of study could not find any form of pattern regarding the question why the Sphinxes let pass some people while they stop others.

While the classical reception is obvious in Die unendliche Geschichte, the case of The Hobbit is a much more complicated case of what might happen when  mixing several myths and traditions. But why do we find deadly riddles in both books for young people? Are such riddles supposed to address notably children and teenagers? The fact that one can find the same topic in fantasy stories for adults suggests that these are interested in riddles in a similar way.[5] But there is nevertheless one important connection between adolescents, riddles of and death: According to Ps.-Plutarch (1.4) no-one less than Homer shall have died of sorrow after he could not have solved some young fisherman’s riddle …

–Michael Kleu is an Ancient Historian at the University of Köln, in Germany, and is fascinated by Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy.  He runs the popularFantastische Antike blog, where his interests combine…  

[1]EduardFiedler: Volksreime und Volkslieder in Anhalt-Deßau, Deßau 1847, p. 43.

[2] Tolkien wrote in the letter to his publisher that he invented most of the riddles from the chapter “A riddle in the Dark” while he took the no-leg riddle and another one from somewhere else. Although he calls the other riddle a traditional one, unfortunately, he does not mention from where he took the riddle with the legs. In the letter Tolkien also wrote that he was inspired by “old literary (but not ‘folk-lore’) riddles” and in one case he mentions American books with nursery rhymes.

[3] The riddle of the Sphinx was a part of the Byzantine Greek Anthology’s riddle collection (book 14 no. 64). Thus, the riddle could have been passed on via the myth of Oedipus and via riddle collections. Neither in Symphosius’ late antique collection (Aenigmata) nor in the Book of Exeter I could find riddles similar to the one under discussion.

[4] In the Alvíssmál Thor and the dwarf Alviss try to settle a dispute in form of a contest in which Alviss must answer Thor’s questions. The contest takes so long that at some point the sunrise turns the dwarf into stone – in Nordic mythology sunlight does that to dwarves – what resembles the fate of the three trolls in “The Hobbit”. For the influence of theAnglo-Saxon tradition of riddling and the Alvíssmál on “The Hobbit” cf. A.Roberts: The Riddles of The Hobbit, Basingstoke/New York 2013.

[5] In Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands” and “Wizard and Glass” (The Dark Tower III & IV) the protagonists have to riddle for their lives against a sentient monorail that has lost its mind.

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Championing Odysseus, part two: an interview with David Hair

The second of a pair of in-depth interviews with Cath Mayo and David Hair, the New Zealand authors who have teamed up to write a trilogy about the lead up to the Trojan War.  It is called the Olympus Trilogy and published by Canelo Press.  Their first volume, Athena’s Champion, has recently been released, and so I have interviewed them about their process and decisions when writing fantasy literature that draws on classical mythology.  

Athena’s Champion is not aimed at youth audiences, but will likely cross over, and it seems timely to interview them both about their work bringing classical antiquity to modern youth audiences.  I interviewed Cath last time; now we bring you my interview with David.  

David Hair is a New Zealand novelist, known for writing fantasy set in interesting places.  His first trilogy, the Aotearoa series for young adults, draws on Maori mythology; the Return of Ravana quartet, also for young adults, is set in India, and features Indian mythology.  He likes to ground his work in mythology and history, to unusual effect.  Athena’s Champion is his first collaborative work, with Cath Mayo, who has also written young adult mythological fantasy.  I sent the authors a number of questions, and they divided them between them.  The answers from both are thoughtful and in-depth, and offer great insights into how writers think about myth.  Enjoy!  

Could you talk a little about your joint project–how it came about, how you work together …?

I met Cath Mayo when we were both presenting at a Storylines event. She’d already written two YA books about a young Odysseus – which struck me as a great concept: Odysseus arrives in the Iliad as a fully formed hero, craftiest of the Greek leaders – I felt there had to be a cool backstory to be told, and Greek mythology was something I’d grown up with – in fact, mythology has informed pretty much everything I’ve written.

To expand on that: I’ve had eleven YA novels published, of which ten deal directly with mythology. Six of those are the Aotearoa series which draws heavily on the mythology, history and culture of New Zealand in an urban fantasy context. The other four are the Return of Ravana series, which I wrote while living in India, and re-tells the India epic, the Ramayana, also as an urban fantasy, using past lives to revisit incidents from Indian history.

Screenshot 2018-11-27 14.15.11
English: Battle at Lanka, Ramayana, by Sahib Din. Battle between the armies of Rama and the King of Lanka. Udaipur, 1649-1653. “Sahib Din’s illustration shows in grisly detail a fierce landmark battle. It takes place between Rama’s army of monkeys and the King of Lanka’s army of demons, as Rama (together with the only other human, his brother Lakshmana) fights to free Rama’s kidnapped wife Princess Sita. Following a gruesome series of hand-to-hand combats, the fortitude of Rama’s monkey army wins through. The illustration is not a ‘single frame’, but shows several stages of the battle alongside each other. For example, in this scene of battle between the demons and Rama’s monkey army, the three-headed figure of the demon general Trisiras occurs in several places – perhaps most dramatically at the bottom left, where he is shown beheaded by Hanuman. The ultimately victorious Rama is shown at the top left, splendidly coloured in blue, calmly contemplating the carnage.” PD-1923

My take on “Young Odysseus” would be quite different to Cath’s, though – I’m a fantasy writer, and her Odysseus books are historical fiction. I was also time-poor, having a lot of projects on the go, and didn’t have the time to research the idea thoroughly. It occurred to me that with Cath on the team, I wouldn’t need to, as she’s already a subject expert. I even naively thought that having two heads onboard would halve my workload (nope).

Anyway, I mulled it over for several months – during which time Cath and our respective partners all became good friends – and then approached her to see if she’d like to work together on a “Young Odysseus Fantasy Story”.

But being me – I’m irresistibly drawn to big concepts – I had a larger plan in mind: I saw it not just as one man’s story, but as a prequel to the Trojan War, with a new take on the Greek Gods – what they were, how they interacted with each other and with humanity. I summarised my ideas into a concept document, and sent it to Cath – it was 12 densely-packed pages long… and bit my nails in trepidation.

Thankfully, Cath was excited by the idea – even though my concept was a departure from her own vision – being in essence a fantasy story, not historical fiction. She’d been wanting to continue the adventures of Odysseus, but like me was time-poor. Perhaps she thought that two people meant half the workload…

So we set about planning what was now called Olympus – a process complicated by the fact that my wife Kerry and I moved to live in Bangkok soon after (Kerry was with the NZ government at the time). Cath and I gelled well as a team, despite (or because of) bringing quite different skills and style to the task.

In terms of how we work together, so far our method has been dictated by circumstance, in that Cath runs a business and writes when she can, while I’m a fulltime writer. We compile and agree a chapter plan, then I do the first draft – I write fast, at times shooting off on tangents. Cath then does the second draft, making it more cohesive, restraining my worst impulses and pulling it back to the agreed storyboard! We bat it back and forth a bit, then it goes to beta readers. Once they’ve given feedback, we both edit/revise it at least twice each, before we’re ready to submit it.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

Yes, I have a BA (History and Classical Studies) from Victoria University in Wellington. But my primary source in this project was the “Encyclopedia Cath” – I only had to name-drop some event, person or divinity and she’d be able to tell me all the salient points! She’s very much the research geek of the team, and deeply immersed in that world.

My personal research was of a more cursory, online nature: old-fashioned “surfing the net” following names and events, cataloguing what I found, trying to work out if/how it fitted into our overall tale. Often our more left-field and unorthodox ideas came from that.

What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

Some of the earliest books I read as a child were collections of myths retold for children, including Greek myth – the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion, Midas and many others. And my degree included papers on Greek history and one on Greek mythology.

I therefore had a hankering for some time to write in this mythos. The main issue was what topic, and how to fit it into my schedule: I’ve had a pretty full calendar over the past few years, having had 11 YA novels and 6 epic fantasy novels published since 2009.

So meeting Cath and “young Odysseus” resolved the question of “what project?”. Having decided that, the selection of the tales we wanted to work with was determined by how they related to Odysseus, and the origins of the Trojan War. That meant working backwards from the War to events like the Abduction/Elopement of Helen by Paris; The Wedding of Helen to Menelaus, and earlier incidents like the Judgement of Paris. We also delved back into the personal lives of our protagonists – like how Odysseus met Penelope, and gained the bow of Atreus; and other lesser known tales like the first Abduction of Helen when she was still young. All of these needed to be accounted for.

So we set about constructing a timetable of Greek mythology – it was like solving a badly cut and incomplete jigsaw. It was in that process that working with Cath was an especial joy – her knowledge of the mythos is so deep, that I only had to mention a name and she knew their history and place in the mythology. And she’s been to many of the sites that we use in the story, which was invaluable for making the landscape authentic, giving the more fantastical elements a solid grounding in reality.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with audiences?

In my degree, one paper was “Uses of Greek Mythology”, which was about mythology itself; what it is, what it’s really trying to impart, etcetera. In summary, it came down to four different things: (1) mythology can be (distorted) oral history; (2) mythology can explain the unknown; (3) mythology can teach through example; and (4) mythology can explore human psychology through symbolism. And sometimes it’s more than one of these things, or even all of them.

For example, Persephone and her abduction by Hades might be a just-so story explaining the seasons; but it can also be read as an exploration of the link between life and death, using divine embodiments of those concepts. Oedipus Rex might be remembered history, but it also might be a morality lesson. You’ve got to look at them from all sides, and make some decisions.

So when the source mythology can be interpreted so many ways – and Greek myth is so colorful, bloodthirsty and morally ambiguous to start with – I think it’s natural that we are constantly drawn back to it. Then you add in all the stuff about “western civilization” having its roots in Ancient and Classical Greek culture, and the continued pervasiveness of aspects of Greek myth in modern culture is thoroughly understandable.

Cover art athenas_champion-amazon
Athena’s Champion

How concerned were you with ‘accuracy’ or ‘fidelity’ to the original?  (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more ‘faithful’ to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?)

Our goal for this series was to write a prequel to the Trojan War that’s (1) consistent with the major events of the Iliad and all related mythology in a logical sequential way; (2) consistent with the fragments of known history for the period; (3) consistent with our vision on the nature of the gods and magic.

We’re nothing if not ambitious.

When we sat down to see if that was even possible, the first thing that’s clear is that even canonical stories can have wild variations, and some of them are impossibly contradictory. For example, the tale of Penelope and her suitors (the men wooing her when they think Odysseus is dead) in the Odyssey: the canonical version is that she is strictly faithful to her missing husband – but in some versions she’s seduced by Hermes; or she even sleeps with all of the suitors and gives birth to the god Pan! So we had to make up our own minds from what was on offer. Sometimes that led to some huge leaps of imagination that really propelled our story forward.

So in answer to whether we fudged things, I think I can say that pretty much everything in our story is in the mythology somewhere, even if only implied: though sometimes we’ve gone with a non-canonical variant. For example, in the Iliad, Odysseus is occasionally slandered by being called the “son of Sisyphus”. He denies it, it’s never proven, but what an irresistible plot hook! And Odysseus’s role in the whole thing is enlarged, of course – we’ve thrown him into various tales in which traditionally he plays no part – but he did get that reputation for cunning somehow

All that geeky research work is behind the scenes – the final story that our readers get is a cohesive, internally logical tale, fast-paced and dramatic. What that depth of research and adherence to source does give us – we hope – is a story that will please not just fantasy adventure fans, but students of the mythology and the history.

You have written young adult fiction before this project.  What would you say are the differences or similarities in writing for young adults vs writing for adults?

In the past, I’ve thought of YA as being simpler, pacier and a little less intense. But increasingly, I would say there are less and less differences between YA and adult writing. My own YA books tend to be more complex than is usual in YA stories, and they have plenty of adult readers.

I think the reasons for this blurring of the lines is that attention spans – and windows of opportunity to read – are becoming shorter for most people, so books have to adapt: you can’t get away with so much scene-setting now; readers want (and therefore publishers demand) that books jump straight into the action, with simpler plotlines and linear, fast-moving action – not just in YA but in adult books as well.

It’s a sobering thought that under such criteria, The Lord of The Rings wouldn’t have been published today. After all, its opening chapters deal with a very gentle birthday party in a rustic place where nothing happens, followed by a history lesson from a garrulous wizard. There’s no real drama until about Chapter Five, as I recall.

It’s also notable that in recent years we’ve seen many YA books become hits in the adult market (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight), which suggests that the distinction between the two is becoming very indistinct.

Cath and I did talk about whether we wanted to write the Olympus series as YA or adult; but we settled on adult for two main reasons – (1) we wanted Odysseus to be entering full manhood, and becoming a fully-fledged hero and leader, not still be on a journey into adulthood; and (2) we wanted to let loose the full power and horror of the Greek mythos, which is replete with horrific acts of murder and vengeance, twisted sexual politics and some genuinely scary monsters. We didn’t want to water it down or pull our punches – and we didn’t.

–David Hair, interviewed by Elizabeth Hale

Championing Odysseus, part one: an interview with Cath Mayo

Cath Mayo and David Hair are New Zealand authors whose fascination with ancient culture led them to a shared goal.  They’ve both written young adult novels with classical twists.  Cath’s Young Adult novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow (written under the name Catherine Mayo) explore the life of a young Odysseus.  The Bow is analysed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey here.   Cath and David have just released their first co-written novelAthena’s ChampionIt’s the first in their ‘Olympus Trilogy,’ and marks a new venture for these two writers.  

Athena’s Champion is not aimed at youth audiences, but will likely cross over, and it seems timely to interview them both about their work bringing classical antiquity to modern youth audiences.  I’m beginning by interviewing Cath, and will post my interview with David in the next couple of weeks.  

Cath is an author, fiddle-player, violin-maker, sailor, mountain-climber, gardener and more (see her bio here on her website), who dreamed as a child of being Odysseus, and as an adult is writing his life from different angles.  Here, I asked her a few questions, about what drew her to working in this field, and where her work is taking her…  

Cath Mayo

 

What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

My mum read Barbara Leonie Picard’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey to me when I was only seven or eight years old, and I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Greece ever since – and with the complex character of Odysseus in particular. So choosing to write about a teenage Odysseus in my first two YA novels, Murder at Mykenai and The Bow, was a no-brainer.

My current collaboration with David Hair has flowed on seamlessly from that – we’re co-writing a series of adult fantasy novels called Olympus, which are also set in Ancient Greece with Odysseus once again as the main character. The first one, Athena’s Champion (Canelo UK), comes out this November.

My YA novels were built up from scraps of myth – the murder of Atreus by his brother, for the first book, and the brief account in the Odyssey about how Odysseus came to own his great bow “when he was still a boy”, for the second.

In our current series, David and I are using some more substantial myths which closely pre-date the Trojan War, to show how Odysseus’s skills develop as he matures into the fully-formed hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some are famous, like the Judgement of Paris, the sack of Thebes by the sons of the Seven, and the marriage of Helen. Others are less well-known – for example, the abduction of Helen by Theseus, the madness of Alcmaeon and the invasion of the Peloponnese by Hyllus, son of Heracles.

In the original tellings of these myths, Odysseus didn’t always play an active part, so the challenge has been to weave him in, so that he’s not just a bit player but takes a substantial role.

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with audiences?

They’re wonderful stories, first and foremost, covering the gamut of human experience and emotion, especially for the people who feel the tales are embedded in their ancestry, and in their spiritual legacy. In a recent BBC poll of “The 100 stories that Shaped the World”, Homer’s Odyssey was voted Number One.

In New Zealand, we’re blessed with two main traditions, our European background and our Maori heritage. Through these we can identify strongly with our origins, both here in the Pacific and back in Europe. And now we have a much more mixed society, we are becoming more aware of the internationality of myth.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect? 

I studied Latin for five years at school and – rather to my surprise – used it at University where I majored in History, focusing particularly on early Medieval history, from the late Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity through to the 12th century intellectual renaissance.

Later, I went back to university for three years to learn Ancient Greek, with an emphasis on Homeric Greek, so I could read the epic poems in the original and get a sense of the Greek psyche through their own use of words and ideas. This has turned out to be hugely useful – not only did I gain a very detailed knowledge of the Odyssey, I can go back to the Greek text and look at the original words. There are some great translations around, but each scholar comes to the text with their own interpretations and agenda.

I also immersed myself, for quite a number of years, in studying the archaeological evidence for the Greek and Aegean Late Bronze Age, right through from the various datings of the Trojan War to the analysis of food residues on the insides of temple pots…

This led to several fruitful correspondences with archaeologists, whose patience and generosity never fails to amaze me.

When I can, I like to go back to the original Greek and Latin texts for the mythological content, and I like to use earlier, Greek versions of myths – once you get into the Roman mythographers, from Virgil onwards, there’s usually an anti-Greek political agenda in there somewhere!

Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth is an excellent portal for this – it’s a tough read, but Gantz outlines the evolution of each myth strand chronologically and gives impeccable source references. Robert Graves’s Greek Myths is a bit hit and miss in that regard.

Wikipedia is okay, especially for geographical overviews, but its entries vary hugely in reliability. The online Greek mythology site I really love is www.theoi.com and for the grittier stuff http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ and the online Loeb library https://www.loebclassics.com/

An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard's The Odyssey of Homer
An inspirational text for Catherine: Barbara Leonie Picard’s The Odyssey of Homer

How concerned were you with ‘accuracy’ or ‘fidelity’ to the original?  (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more ‘faithful’ to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?)

There are two aspects to this issue – the myths as stories on the one hand, and the social and physical settings of the myths on the other.

In terms of the myths, David and I both begin by working closely with the earlier versions of the stories we’ve chosen, but as we get deeper into the writing process, the finer details tend to get distorted, as we pursue our story and the characters we’re developing.

To start with, I felt bad about doing this, but Prof Anne MacKay at Auckland University reassured me. She explained that myths aren’t static entities – even in the earliest versions there’s quite a bit of variation, and none of it is “right” or “wrong”. Modern story tellers are also part of the myth-making process, so our own interpretations and variations occur within the tradition.

David and I were confronted with a particularly thorny example of myth variation in action when we were planning Oracle’s War, the second book in our Olympus series. The last part of the book deals with the sacking of Thebes by the Epigoni, the sons of the Seven, and it fell to me ( I get all the best jobs!) to work out not only who the Seven and the Epigoni were, but how they were all related. There are any number of lists, and none of them agree – one even includes Eteocles among the Seven, even though he was the enemy king of Thebes at the time!

And the Seven and the Epigoni had the nasty habit of marrying their aunts, which makes familial relations curious, to say the least. It took me a week to create lists that were coherent, and to draw up a useful family tree.

All this, of course, needs to be next-to-invisible in the final narrative, but it has to be done so that at least we, the authors, understand what’s going on…

Both David and I are also very keen on setting the physical aspects of the books in the Late Bronze Age, rather than the “Heroic Age”, an invented fantasy world that evolved, along with the myths, over the centuries.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are early examples of this “Heroic Age” setting. They have their roots in the Bronze Age but over many lifetimes of retelling, the bards of the Homeric tradition introduced elements from their own eras. So the “Heroic Age” is a huge amorphous potpourri of cultural elements spanning between five hundred and a thousand years or so, depending on the myth and who is telling it. Scholars have lots of fun deciding which elements in the Iliad or the Odysseus date from which era – Bronze Age, Dark Age or early Archaic period.

“Historical” accuracy is more difficult to achieve – Greece in the Late Bronze Age is described as “prehistoric”. For most people, this suggests something pretty crude, like “Stone Age” or “Neanderthal”. But LBA Greece was a highly sophisticated society. In fact, “prehistoric” in this context is a technical term, meaning that their society didn’t keep written commentaries on political events.

Although Greece at that time did use writing, what has survived was employed very differently. The Linear B tablets – at least those that survived the great palace conflagrations at the end of the period – record things like food rations for female slaves, or the number of chariot wheels the palace owned, or the amount of perfumed oil a deity would be given.

Fortunately other contemporaneous societies – the Egyptians and the Hittites – did record such things as treaties and diplomatic correspondence. So, through their eyes, we occasionally glimpse the Ahhiyawa or Achaeans – the term used by the Hittites for the Ancient Greeks of the time. This gives us an external historical context, which we can match up with the archaeological findings to some degree.

You have written young adult fiction before this project.  What would you say are the differences or similarities in writing for young adults vs writing for adults?

I find there’s not that much difference – both my YA books and our Olympus series are action adventure stories, so they have the same imperatives. The story needs to keep moving, cliff-hangers keep the reader hooked, the language needs to be vivid and uncluttered, and there’s plenty of contrast between the “talkie” sections and the action scenes.

Because of the older readership age, the Olympus series can deal with more complex ideas. And it can take the depiction of violence and sex up a notch – though both David and I hate being gratuitous. The word count is longer with adult fiction, which gives the story more room to expand, and the characters – especially the bad guys – swear more often and more pungently. I think it’s the swearing that provides the biggest demarcation.

Could you talk a little about your joint project–how it came about, how you work together …?

 

David and I met during a Storylines day a few years ago – we’d been selected as YA authors and took part in the same events. Between times, we chatted a lot about writing and about Ancient Greece, which we both love. That led to shared dinners and a thriving friendship.

Then David sprung the idea of co-writing the Olympus series. I’d played in bands for years, so the idea of improvising with someone else wasn’t new. But I had no idea how that might work with words, rather than music. Scary!

We plan a lot. David was about to head off to Bangkok to live, so after a first, pretty intensive weekend face-to-face, we brainstormed our way through a string of Storyboards on Skype, searching out how the story would feel, the way the gods and magic would work, and the overall shape of each plot. We also set up an Excel timeline spreadsheet, and wrote countless background documents about characters and settings and places.

This sounds a bit nerdy. But all that hard work behind the scenes should be invisible, so readers get a fast-moving adventure story and compelling characters who leap off the page.

I’d read a few collaborative novels before and they mostly have each author writing their own main character, so you get two alternating narrations. But we’ve got one main character and one point of view, so that wasn’t going to work for us.

David is a fulltime writer, while I run a busy violin repair business, so he does the first drafts – he’s brilliant at getting the guts of the story down fast. I love character-building and creating physical settings, and feeling the book growing and filling out under my fingers, so I work on the second draft.

Crucially, we’ve found the same voice. Either of us can chuck out or add in any number of words or ideas – we’re both pretty ruthless like that – but by the end of the process, I often don’t know which words or ideas are David’s and which are mine.

Thank you!

-Cath Mayo in conversation with Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

Adventuring with Aeneas: Julian Barr and The Way Home

In which Queensland novelist and historian Julian Barr discusses his take on the Aeneid in his young adult novel, The Way Home, which explores ideas of exile and homelessness through the eyes of a young Aeneas.  I asked Julian about process, adaptation, reception and how the Aeneid plays out in a Young Adult context.  

The Way Home was published this year by Odyssey Books.  What drew you to writing/working with Classical Antiquity and what challenges did you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?

Virgil’s writing resonated with me in my late teens and I felt an urge to engage with the Aeneid creatively. I adored the sense of adventure. It was a classic quest with monsters, gods and epic battles. More than that, I loved the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. After a failed attempt to translate the story from Latin into prose similar to an historical thriller, I thought this was the end of the idea. Silly me! In 2013 I attended the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading and saw many panels on classical reception in YA literature. Yet the key moment came on my way home. At Heathrow I met with a lady from Bosnia. Listening to her harrowing story of tragedy and exile, everything came together: the Aeneid is a refugee’s story from a world of gods and magic. It’s about people who yearn for a place to belong. Even now this theme is all too relevant. This idea connected with the YA panels and The Way Home was born.

There are many challenges in adapting Virgil’s writing for YA readers, not least of which is crossing genres. For example, the poem’s lengthy exposition-filled prologue lacks the immediacy and pace you need for YA. It’s better to convey such information organically. Show, don’t tell!

Making Aeneas relatable for YA readers presented a further challenge. He is a husband and a father, not a modern teenager. I dealt with it by making Aeneas as young as possible—nineteen. In his bronze-age society it was normal to be married by the mid-teens, so it made sense for Kreusa and Aeneas to have a child of three or four. I also drew on personal experiences as a young dad. Some readers raise their eyebrows at the hero as a teenage parent, but most are happy to accept it as historically authentic.

How to deal with marginalisation of women in myth? Aside from Aeneas all my viewpoint characters are female. You’ll find goddesses, queens, Amazons, healers and fisherwomen in the story. As a social historian, I’m interested in how women can exert power in a patriarchal society. It felt right to explore this in the novel. Foregrounding female viewpoints necessitates looking beyond a military context to define heroism. Rape and violence against women are also prevalent in classical myth. Glossing over confronting subjects insults young readers, who can process such things when handled sensitively. That said, you won’t find rape scenes or graphic violence in The Way Home. Instead I focus on psychological repercussions of violence, dealing with horrible things in an emotionally authentic way.

The Way Home, cover image

 

Why do you think classical / ancient myths, history, and literature continue to resonate with young audiences?​

For YA readers, the cultural value of classical antiquity matters less than the visceral thrill of journeying with heroes and villains and monsters. They want to go on an adventure in a strange world with amazing characters.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school or classes at the University?) What sources are you using? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?  

I have a PhD in Classics from the University of Queensland, where I taught ancient history and languages. As an education officer at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, I helped design the education program.

Though Virgil is my major primary source, you’ll also find elements of Homer, Herodotus, Ovid, tragedies, and even medieval romances. I drew upon too many secondary sources to name and consulted numerous translations and commentaries. I owe a debt to Michael Paschalis for his 1997 commentary considering the etymology of proper names in Virgil. If there was a quick detail or name I needed to check, I did consult Wikipedia. Guilty!

How do you think working with the Aeneid affected/affects your storytelling?

Reading the Aeneid aloud in Latin taught me that the weight of a syllable can affect readers on a subconscious level. The steady rhythm of dactylic hexameter gives the story an almost military clip. The Aeneid belongs to a society where war equals honour and glory. The metre informs my thinking about pace, keeping the story marching forward.

Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home
Aeneas and Anchises, illustrated by Matt Wolf for The Way Home (copyright Matt Wolf).

Aeneas is an intriguing hero, not cunning like Odysseus or invincible like Achilles. His strength is endurance. For a displaced people, that is everything. He is also unusual among epic heroes because Virgil seldom calls him a king, reflecting Roman skittishness about monarchy. Yet Virgil’s literary patron was the first emperor of Rome. The tension between abhorrence of kingship and adherence to authoritarianism colours my portrayal of Aeneas’s leadership style. My Aeneas is not a king, but a prince—one step removed from princeps.

Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers?

While many YA readers love mythology, the writing must be vivid from page one. Nothing bores young readers more than a dry, dusty retelling which is more monument than story. Characters should live and breathe in a way that marble statues can’t. Being emotionally authentic means digging deep into my own experience—scary, but worth it!

Since visual literacy is vital in the age of the graphic novel, I invited illustrator Matt Wolf to enrich the story with nine comic book style illustrations. Maps are another fantasy staple. Linc Morse exquisitely charted Aeneas’s travels. Readers get a thrill connecting modern and ancient place names. The map also serves as a story-telling device to draw readers into the world of the Middle Sea, so it is rendered in an antiquarian style complete with sea monsters.

Because YA readers tend to be interested in self-discovery, I didn’t lay out Aeneas’s heritage at the outset. He is on a journey toward adulthood. This distinguishes my Aeneas from Virgil’s. The Aeneas of the epic is fully formed from line one. He knows himself and his purpose, while my Aeneas must figure it out.

Many YA readers are passionate about racial diversity and don’t want another story about a white male conquering his enemies. That story has been told a bazillion times. Diversity is a challenge when working with a text whose opening line is: ‘I sing of arms and a great man.’ Hate groups sometimes co-opt antiquity to justify prejudice and bigotry. The last thing I want is for my book to celebrate unexamined privilege, but also don’t want representation to feel tokenistic. Digging a little deeper into primary sources, there is ample room to represent racial diversity. It’s not tokenism so much as realism. The heroes come from Western Asia, finding their way to North Africa via the Greek Islands. It isn’t difficult to make the diversity of the Mediterranean feel authentic, because it is.

Queer representation is more complex. How to include queer perspectives when the concept of sexual identity didn’t exist in antiquity? Nor did the concept of romantic love, even between men and women. If it did, it ideally developed during marriage. Infatuation was often viewed as a contagion. This is particularly difficult, as young readers are so invested in forming relationships. Though same-sex attraction was never an issue for ancient Greeks, I don’t envisage Greco-Roman antiquity as a utopia which celebrated all forms of love. It had its own restrictions and social norms. Speaking broadly, sexuality was conceptualised in terms of power dynamics—the idea being that partners had complementary but unequal roles. It’s complicated. I’m uncomfortable depicting relationships in terms of unequal distribution of power in a YA novel. Nobody wants to portray abusive relationships as normal. So I compromised. My characters form romantic relationships with people their own age much like today. Some are attracted to their own sex. It’s just part of who they are and nobody bats an eyelid.

How concerned were you with ‘accuracy’ or ‘fidelity’ to the original?  (another way of saying that might be—that I think writers are often more ‘faithful’ to originals in adapting its spirit rather than being tied down at the level of detail—is this something you thought about?)

As the project evolved from translation to adaptation, I had to tell the story in my own voice. It’s an original work which captures what makes the story significant to me. My goal is to entertain rather than educate. Every generation has reinterpreted the Aeneid. Therefore I had no qualms about changing certain details, so long as the world-building was consistent. However, I do ensure the story remains recognisable, so I avoid inventing things for its own sake. The changes I make are hopefully sympathetic to the poem, if not a carbon copy. Sometimes I’m not bucking against the poem but traditional adaptations of myth. For example, Zeus is more antagonistic than you might expect. In many adaptations Zeus becomes a whimsical benefactor, but my version of Zeus is as deceitful, violent, and manipulative as he is in many myths.

The secondary characters of The Way Home are also more fleshed out. Trojans fill the Aeneid, but they are little more than names pushed into the background to make the great man appear greater. I wanted to show Aeneas isn’t the only one contributing to the Trojans’ survival. For this I drew upon Book 5 of the Aeneid. In the funeral games and descent within the Trojan ranks, Virgil allows his secondary characters a rare moment to shine. I extrapolated their personalities and relationships from their behaviour. Sometimes I had little choice but to change the characters’ names or combine them. Fans of the Aeneid may find Akhates noticeable by his absence—readers kept getting him confused with Ankhises! So he became Mnestheos.

Readers may also notice structural differences between the Aeneid and The Way Home. The story progresses in linear order as it is easier to follow. I also write in third person throughout, avoiding Virgil’s technique of having Aeneas narrate portions of the story. This allows me to alternate between Aeneas’s viewpoint and those of the gods. Shifting viewpoints increases tension and widens the scope of the narrative.

I expanded the role of Pyrrhos, making him a main antagonist. In the Aeneid Pyrrhos shows up, murders the royal family, then departs. Ancient readers would know that Pyrrhos gets his comeuppance off stage. Yet this doesn’t feel right for the novel because I can’t count on the reader’s prior knowledge of Greek myth. Introducing a villain and leaving him unvanquished would break a promise to the reader. Given that most of the antagonists are immortal, it feels dramatically satisfying for Aeneas to have an adversary he can overcome. Also, it would have been a little dull to follow the Trojans wandering aimlessly from island to island, so having a Greek warlord pursuing them escalates the tension nicely.

There are other, pretty big changes… But I won’t spoil those!

Julian Barr
Julian Barr

Are you planning any further forays into classical material?​

The sequel, The Ivory Gate, will be released in 2019. I’m also querying agents with another classically inspired fantasy set in a world like Roman Britain, only with talking animals and giant automatons. Plus I’m translating Byzantine sources on St Nicholas with Dr Amelia Brown. The project is due for completion next year. Most of my stories deal with classical material, but not all. The world is full of amazing stories that want to be told. I’ll never find time for them all, but I’ll take my best crack at it!

–Julian Barr, in conversation with Elizabeth Hale.  Julian has a lively blog, which you can read here.

Disco et Doceo–Classical Wisdom in the Australian Classroom

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Classical Languages Teachers Association conference in Sydney.  Its guiding words were ‘Disco et Doceo: Classical Wisdom K012 and Beyond.’  (For non-Australian readers, K-12 means from kindergarten to year 12, or throughout the years of primary and secondary school).

There, I spoke about the Our Mythical Childhood project to a dynamic and dedicated (and very well-dressed) group of classics teachers from around Australia, and beyond.  The CLTA is the leading body of school classics educators, and there were well over 60 teachers in attendance, including representatives from most States of Australia, and visitors from New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Eureka!  An introduction to Classical Greek for young Australians

Dr Emily Matters, who heads the Association, organised the conference, and put together a program of presentations about aspects of classics, and aspects of classics teaching. Emily is the brains behind the Eureka! Greek textbook, which may be unique in the world in uniting the study of Ancient Greek with the mythology and customs of Indigenous Australians.

Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag
Eureka! in good company, with the conference booklet, a hard copy of the Legonium lessons, and other goodies from the conference bag

ACARA, Pro Archia, and Rhetorical Flair

Dr Tracey McAllister from ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, shared the story of the development of the Australian Classical Languages Curriculum.  While its initial focus was on Classical Greek and Latin, significantly, it was set as a framework to assist the development of other Classical Languages–perhaps a world first in any educational authority.  Tracey is a convert to the cause of Classical Languages and stated that she believes all students would benefit from the study.

Other speakers included A/Prof Kathryn Welch (University of Sydney), fresh off a plane from Italy,  who talked about the background to Pro Archia, and Dr Alexander Bril (Sydney Grammar School), who took us through our rhetorical paces and shed light on some important Ciceronian dates.  And Dr Anne Rogerson, (University of Sydney) spoke about the Aeneid’s Book I, inspiring me to think more about the ways that classical narrative patterns map onto aspects of children’s literature storytelling. Do stories lead us homewards, or Romewards?  It depends, in children’s and classical literature alike.

Classicum–Contributions Welcome

Anne Rogerson is the incoming editor of Classicum, the journal of the CLTA and the Classical Association of New South Wales. She writes:

We welcome articles of various lengths on Ancient Greek and Latin literature, history, philosophy, archaeology and their reception, as well as essays on the teaching of Classical languages or other topics relating to ancient Greece and Rome, and reflective pieces from practitioners on performances and other artistic productions that present or respond to Classical material. We also publish review essays on books, exhibitions, performances and other art that relate explicitly or implicitly to the ancient world. Our aim is to make the Classical past and our modern engagements with it accessible to a broad audience while also publishing work of use and interest to scholars and teachers of the Classical world.

To read Classicum, or to be in touch with Anne, check out the link, here.

Classical Swag

Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey's pottery reconstructions
Jessica from Legonium, a friendly horn-blower, and an example of Dorothy Healey’s pottery reconstructions

Those of us who received conference bags were lucky enough to take home one of Dorothy Healey’s wonderful recreations of Ancient Greek pottery, as well as other less ‘authentic’ goodies, including a gingerbread Roman Legionary duck (made by the Central Coast’s best bakery. ) And Anthony Gibbins of Legonium fame (and Sydney Grammar School) kindly donated a hard copy of his Latin lessons, and ‘Jessica,’ one of the minifigures who stars in the series.

Legionary Duck at Conference Dinner . . .
Disco et Ducky-o: Legionary Gingerbread at Conference Dinner . . .

 

Classical Inspirations

I went home, clutching my swag, but more importantly inspired, and educated, by the creativity and dedication of the teachers I met and heard from.  It may not yet be compulsory for students to study classics or classical languages in Australian high schools, but judging by the energy in the room, that day may well be on the way.  It was a privilege to be involved in this gathering of the people who introduce such wonderful material to the next generation of classical scholars.

–Liz Hale