Category Archives: Mythology

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

HarperCollins, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction.

A beautiful retelling of the events leading up to the The Iliad and the first ten years of the Trojan War, told from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’ close companion.  This is a tale of love and of the atrocities of war, just as relevant today as in Homer’s time.

Madeline Miller’s first novel has me wanting to reread both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Maybe I’ll make that a reading goal for this coming fall and winter.  Another book I loved that is written from the point of view of a secondary classical character is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.

     Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions.  “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”

“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave.  “Or your brother?  Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”

“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said.  “He is worth more to you, perhaps.  But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother.  So which life is more important?”

We had been silent.  We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us.  Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.  From pages 298/299.

A fine novel that will be one of my top ten books for 2012.

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Filed under Classic, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, OrangePrize, Thoughts

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Canongate, New York, 2011

From my local library.  Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.

Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.

As  bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of  the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences  and the peace and love preached in church.  She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.

The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction.  They faced the end of the world they knew.  The English country world did not end, as many others did,  was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies.  But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.

Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand.  These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world.  They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.

I’ve said it before,  A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller.   She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child.  By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school.  Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful.  Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.

Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war.  We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.

But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet.   She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her.  She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet.  These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss.  The End of the Gods?  Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.

It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe.  As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to.  Maybe someone has created an audio version.  Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.

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Filed under A.S. Byatt, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, New York, 2010

From my library hold list.  My second book for Once Upon A Time VI.

God and mortals.  What other combination speaks so directly to our mythological roots?

N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel is rich and full of the unexpected.

In the city of Sky there is a castle, perched on top of a high column.  The castle is also called Sky and in it live the King of the Empire, his heirs and retinue.  It  is where the governing body holds their council.   Within the castle are hidden places where Gods and Goddesses are live.  Called “Weapons”, they are enslaved by the Royal Family and at the beck and call of their human captors.   They are also at war with each other.

This, to me, is wonderful mythic world building and I love it.  And within this fine first novel, like all good stories, are aspects of human culture, behavior, and hubris.  Racism, colonialism, class issues, slavery and politics all play a part.

From my window in Sky, it seemed as though I could see the whole of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  That was a fallacy, I knew: scriveners have proven that the world is round.  Yet it is easy to imagine.  So many winking lights, like stars on the ground.

My People were audacious builders once.  We carved our cities into mountainsides and positioned our temples to make a calender of the stars – but we could never have built anything like Sky.  Nor could the Amn, of course, not without the aid of their captive gods, but this is not the main reason Sky is deeply, profoundly wrong in Darre eyes.  It is blasphemy to separate oneself from the earth and look down on it like a god.  It is more than blasphemy, it is dangerous.  We can never be gods, after all – but we can become something less than human with frightening ease.  From page 74.

Drawn into this world I found I could not put this book down and it has taken me a while to come up with words to express my thoughts. I may be going out on a limb here, but for me, after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,  N.K. Jemisin has joined with Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler as one of my favorite science fiction/ fantasy authors.  I can not wait to read the other books in The Inheritance Trilogy and her new Dreamblood series.

Jemisin has been publishing short stories for a while now.  I have got to pay more attention to print and online Science Fiction/Fantasy publications!

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Filed under Fantasy, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Canongate, New York, 2010

I own this one.

Philip Pullman is a favorite author, His Dark Materials is a favorite trilogy.  I looked forward to reading this book, part of the Canongate Myth Series, a retelling of the story of Jesus.  I now find it difficult to write about for it brings up old feelings, so I am just going to give a brief outline and leave it at that

The story is based on the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.  By splitting Jesus Christ into two characters, twins born to Mary, Pullman allows us to see the paths that diverge at this point in human history.

There is Jesus,  a brilliant and often tormented preacher and storyteller.  He is loved by his followers, a problem for the temple elders and a threat to those in power.  And there is Christ, hebrew for “Messiah” who, at the urging of a “stranger”, begins to record what his brother says and what people see, or believe they see, him do.

It is the “stranger” who directs Christ to record what is happening around him, to give that record a certain tone, and each time they meet he guides Christ, tells him to write in a certain way, to add a bit more to the story.

…There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the  Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor.  What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was

…There is time and there is what is beyond time.  History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time.  In writing things as they should have been you are letting truth into history.  You are the word  of God.  From pages 98/99

These writings will, eventually,  plant the seeds of the gospels and the Christian church.  Pullman never makes it clear who the “stranger” is, is he acting on his own?  Is there some power behind him?

This book is part of a series of myths, and myths are narratives that explain how we came to be and how we got to be where we are.  Pullman shines a light into a corner, revealing things about power and coercion, about the formation of belief. It is always about the story and about who tells it.

He says:

The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ.  But what I do with it is my responsibility alone.  Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history and parts like a fairy tale;  I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.

I think I am going to have to step away and then come back and reread this one.

Other reviews:

Bookphilia

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The Captive Reader

things mean a lot

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