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.
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 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!
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.