Archive for December, 2010

The Allure of Historical Fiction…

December 27, 2010

I enjoy reading historical fiction novels.  I find them informative on the time periods they cover as well as entertaining in their characterizations of notable persons I have heard about through much of my life. These novels, in great measure, bring such figures to life. There is almost no period of history that doesn’t fascinate me, although I have preferences for certain ages that excite me more than others, ancient Greece and Rome being the most notable of these.

Historical fiction has an allure to writers as well as readers.  The old truism “hindsight is 20-20 vision” creates a world of opportunities in providing a protagonist with remarkable  insight, placing him or her head and shoulders above everyone else in the story, endowed  with powers of observation and an ability to see the outcome of actions taken.

There’s an appeal to such a character; we are impressed with his intelligence and savvy; we admire the astuteness and daring he exhibits, especially if this goes against the grain; we respect his opposition because we know he was right and all the others wrong, history assuring us of this.  In this regard, characters of historical fiction novels have an edge over the people who actually lived during the times written about; they often know what influence their lives will have had on the events depicted (at least so I think).

That doesn’t give us a total free hand when writing in that genre without running a risk of turning fiction into fantasy.  Do historical fiction novels need to be historically accurate?   I would say, in order to have credibility -yes.  It helps to have actual historical figures mentioned, even if not the main characters, for the sake of authenticity, and that means  giving them the attributes they possessed in life.  Research is required-you can’t just think these things up.  Much of my work in Polyxena was to assure that I accurately depicted the better known characters of the novel, giving them the personalities and features they were noted for (Cassandra burdened with her curse; Helen for her beauty; Odysseus for his cunning, etc.).

With my heroine, Polyxena, I was fortunate that little is actually written about her; even in works that mention her, it’s almost as if only in passing.  Take the Latin sources: in   Vergil’s The Aeneid  (Book III), a captive Andromache relates to us:  “Supremely happy was Polyxena, beyond all others being doomed to death, by an enemy’s tomb at the foot of Troy’s ramparts.  She was not chosen to be a slave by lot, or pleasure her master with her captive body!” That’s it -nothing more.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book XIII), we are given a more detailed, but also brief, account of her last moments; in it, he writes that, among other things, she tells Neoptolemus: “The time has come to spill my blood; let there be no more delay: plunge your blade now into my throat or breast”, and she bared both, “for you may rest assured: Polyxena does not desire to live as a slave!” This is a sterner Polyxena than my own creation, whose sense of modesty would have deterred her from baring her breasts (Roman writers loved such displays of bravado).   But that is the beauty of writing about a less known figure -you have a lot of leeway in how you want to present her (I am pleased over how I portrayed Polyxena).



On Achilles…

December 20, 2010

So much has been written about Achilles, you can cover pages on it; I will try to confine myself to the basics about him and how I presented him in my novel.

Achilles is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad; he is the swiftest, strongest, and the most beautiful of all the Greeks at Troy.  The adjectives beautiful, swift running, great, godlike, blazing and brilliant are all used abundantly in this work when describing him.  He struck a cord with young Greeks in the ancient days and it is said Alexander the Great, who greatly admired him, carried a copy of The Iliad with him on all his campaigns.

Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus, King of Phthia, and the Sea-goddess Thetis.  While still a baby, Thetis, wishing to make her son immortal, anointed him in ambrosia and laid him into the embers of sacred fires (or, by some accounts, the river Styx) holding  him by his heel, the one spot that remained vulnerable on him.  Peleus, seeing this, took the baby from her, scolding her so severely that she left them and returned to the sea.

In some accounts, Peleus then turns his son over to the Centaur, Cheiron, who gives him his name and trains him in the manly arts and instills courage in him.  When he returns to the court, Peleus places him under the tutelage of the wise man, Phoenix, and makes Patroclus a squire to Achilles; the two become closest of companions and even lovers (in ancient Greece, same-sex intimacy did not necessarily mean same-sex preference).

Another version has Thetis (apparently back in the family), who knew her son was fated to die at Troy, sending him to Lycomedes, king of the island of Scyrus; at her insistence, Lycomedes had Achilles dressed as a girl and raised him among his own daughters, naming him Pyrrha (flaming one) -which leads us to conclude Achilles had red or light hair. While there, he has an affair with one of the king’s daughters, Deidameia, who was to give birth to a son she named Pyrrhus, later changed to Neoptolemus.

When the war is imminent, Odysseus comes to Scyrus to get Achilles (on the counsel of the seer Calchas who said the war could not be won without him).  He uncovered the disguise by placing feminine trinkets and a sword and shield on the porch, and then sounded a distant trumpet as the girls were examining the items.  Achilles tore off his feminine clothes and picked up the armaments; once discovered, he eagerly embraced the invitation to go to Troy.  He assumed command of the Myrmidons and with fifty ships sailed for Troy, accompanied by Phoenix and Patroclus.  Numerous intrigues and adventures occur along the way (landing at the wrong place in Mysia; Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, sacrificing his daughter, Iphigeneia; Achilles consciously choosing his preference for the glory of an early death to the obscurity of old-age, etc)..

Once at Troy, Agamemnon assigned Achilles to wage battles against Troy’s allied cities, an operation that took nearly nine years; he sacked twelve cities by sea, including several islands, and eleven more by land (we get this through the dialogue of The Iliad).  One of the cities was Lyrnessus, where he killed its ruler and took his beautiful daughter, Briseis, as a concubine.  After completing his mission, Achilles returned to Troy to join in the siege.  It was then that his rift with Agamemnon -where The Iliad begins- occurred.

Agamemnon was forced to give up his own concubine, Chryseis, to save the Greeks from a plague, and took Briseis from Achilles.  The story is now familiar: Achilles, fuming over the loss (he very much loved Briseis), withdraws his Myrmidons from the fighting (actually a power struggle involving leadership/subordinate principles); the Trojans take the offensive under Hector and push the Greeks to the beaches; Patroclus then begs Achilles to assist the Greeks and is permitted to wear his armor; Hector kills him thinking he is Achilles; Achilles rejoins the fighting and kills Hector in single combat and drags his body behind his chariot to the shore, refusing to allow its burial; Priam comes into Achilles’s tent and begs for the body to be ransomed; Achilles relents; Hector is given a hero’s funeral (here the Iliad ends -and Polyxena’s story begins).  I’ve just summed up the world’s greatest war epic in a single paragraph -amazing (there’s a lot more to it).

Shortly after Hector’s funeral, the Amazons under Penthesileia come to Troy’s assistance; Achilles defeats them, kills Penthesileia, and apparently falls in love with her corpse; he kills Thersites for mocking him over this (in my novel, Polyxena is an eye-witness to all this).  Later he is killed by an arrow shot by Paris.  His ashes were mixed with those of Patroclus in a golden urn that was buried in a barrow set up by the beach.  After the fall of Troy, the ghost of Achilles came to the Greeks and demanded the sacrifice of Priam’s daughter, Polyxena, on his tomb.  Later classical writers developed the reason for this:  Achilles had been in love with her; he was slain going to seek her hand in marriage when her brothers, Paris and Deiphobus, ambushed him.

The Iliad Achilles comes across as brooding and introspective, intelligent but stubborn, quick to anger, and quite social when he wants to be.  He turns into a veritable beast when avenging Patroclus’s death, devoid of humanity, but redeems himself when Priam comes to his tent for the body of Hector, regaining his compassion (one interpretation: again joining the human community).

In my novel, Polyxena knows about Achilles long before she ever sees him, the stories about his prowess and background having reached Troy, and also for having slain her brothers and the sorrow this brought to her family.  They do not meet until after he has defeated the Amazons and Polyxena is his captive.  He escorts her back to Troy, honoring the conventions protecting envoys, and this is when romance blossoms between them (covered in an earlier blog).  In the context of the novel, their time together is brief -only three chapters out of twenty-four- yet it has far-reaching consequences, especially for her.

I have tried to stay true to the myths and give Achilles his heroic stature; unlike many authors taking the Trojan side, I do not vilify him, but rather, through Polyxena’s love of him, keep his more admirable qualities intact.  How could it be otherwise?

They are, after all, in love.

Parallels With Other Stories…

December 14, 2010

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with the words “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I believe each tragic heroine in literature is tragic in her own particular way, relative to the circumstances and events taking place around her so that comparisons between them may not be that appropriate.  Polyxena is a tragic heroine -of this there is no doubt; she has a tragic life, or rather final ten months of it, the time span covered in the novel, living a ‘lifetime’ in that duration.  Her story is unique and I cannot match her up with any other literary character in quite the same light.  Still, there are some similarities that might be made; I will endeavor to cover them here.

Most tragic heroines have this in common -their downfall is the result of love’s passion (Aphrodite’s maneuverings) -leading them into adulterous affairs (Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina) or being sexually assaulted (Tess Durbeyfield), and are then victimized by its aftermath.  Polyxena doesn’t quite fit that mold -Yes, it’s true that love is her undoing, specifically her spurning the love of Neoptolemus, but what is not clear is whether she created her own fate or was fulfilling her destiny.  Mainly it is the war that brings great sorrow to her.  How many countless people, mostly in stories untold, share this claim?

Polyxena is taken from a relatively sheltered court life -not entirely without grief, for she mentions her pain over the loss of her brothers, Troilus, Polydorus and especially Hector (which happened before her own story begins)- and is sent to the Amazons to secure them as an ally in the war.  She is asked to accompany them in their campaign against the enemy-occupied cities and in doing so comes face-to-face with the cruelty of war -in all its ugliness and savagery.  She reacts accordingly, shocked and horrified -an assault on her senses- yet she clings to her moral values, and remains compassionate in her regard for others.  In that respect, she can be compared with Anne Frank, the ill-fated Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Holland, who also manages to adhere to a moral sense of goodness under absolute frightening and harsh conditions.

Many tragic heroines, as Polyxena, are drawn from classical mythology.  Their names reverberate through time in the pages of some of western civilization’s greatest literary and musical works -Antigone, Ariadne, Dido, Electra, Medea, Phaedra- and are united in undergoing adversity and the suffering it entails (a common theme: helping a hero they love escape from dire circumstances and then being abandoned once the hero makes it to safe ground).

I recently saw the movie Pan’s Labyrinth and felt there was a similarity between Ofelia and Polyxena.  Ofelia, the tragic little girl in the movie, is also caught up in a grim world of cruelty, and seeks her escapism from it through fantasizing, to the point where her fantasies become her reality (I think that is the movie’s message, although the narration makes one believe Ofelia was also fulfilling a special destiny).  Polyxena, older and thus more realistic, seeks escapism through her rationalization and solitary rides on her horse, Zephyrus, but as she is confronted with one tragedy after another, she begins to doubt her ability to remain sane under the psychic battering.  When Priam, her father, tells her to prepare for the worst, she tells us:

The worst?  I have endured one worst setback after another ever since being asked to go to Themiscyra.  Was it even possible to undergo more tragedies?  I had to block such notions out of my mind and concentrate on the positive, be optimistic, else I feared I might go mad.

Yet she also experiences great joys in her final ten months -her love of Achilles, and Antiope, and Zephyrus- the memories of which allow her to endure her reversals.  “The war brought you to them,” Priam reminds her.

After the death of Achilles, Polyxena is dogged with depression, which gets worse as greater misfortunes befall her.  As she nears her time of execution, she informs us:

My depression still clings oppressively about me.  I am unable to shake it off, but I now believe I am actually well served by my deplorable state.  In my gloomy outlook, I have developed a strange longing for having my misery put to an abrupt end….I derive no pleasures from anything I saw, heard, or did, seeing a sadness in everything, not the kind of sadness that makes one cry but, rather, that projects a sense of hopelessness, seeing the world as an uncompromising, cold, unfeeling, alien place, a place where one does not belong.  This is my present world, and I increasingly look to death as my only escape from it.

Come to think of it, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Tess Durbeyfield, even Anne Frank, might have all shared the same thought.

Polyxena and the Modern Reader…

December 6, 2010

At its core, Polyxena is the story of a young woman, facing death by sacrifice and in fear of this, attempting to come to grips with her reality, and ultimately, through the power of love, accepting her fate.  Her struggle is as relevant today as when Troy fell during the Bronze Age.

Polyxena resonates with the modern reader.  She is not Wonder Woman; she is not the queen of a nation as Penthesileia; she is not the commander of an army as Antiope; she is not the ravishing, unsurpassed beauty as Helen; she is not endowed with extraordinary abilities as Cassandra.  She is a royal princess, a bright teenage girl, more contemplative than most, who suddenly has great responsibilities thrust upon her (as an envoy to the Amazons, getting them to fight for Troy) and finds herself immersed in the unrestrained violence that is war, trying her best to cope with the tragedies that come her way.

She has a contemporary outlook in many ways, possessed of an independent spirit that has her at odds with the other women at Troy.  It has already been mentioned that she is self-conscious about her love for Antiope.  She is also an early proponent of women’s rights, mostly alone and, sad to say, ineffective in this advocacy amid a patriarchal male-dominated society.  Even before coming to the Amazons, Polyxena reveals her leanings in that direction:

Certainly women had little power or influence in our world… and to hear that there were places were such conditions did not exist -or were even reversed- was a revelation.

Her stay with the Amazons has a lasting effect on her; when she returns to Troy, she has problems fitting back into her proscribed setting.

Penthesileia had involved me in her high-level command gatherings, where she discussed battle plans and strategies with me, even soliciting opinions from me….I thought, perhaps naively, that the mission I had undergone qualified me for at least a voice in the proceedings of our council, but apparently, I was wrong.  Ours was still very much a man’s world, and women were relegated to the backwaters of the major flow of events generated by the decisions and actions of men…My adjustment to my underappreciated role -commonly referred to as woman’s work: weaving, sewing, caring for children, punishing the servants, the afternoon chats- was difficult for me, and my nature rebelled against this, causing me to often regret that I ever came back to Troy.

She demonstrates this rebellion by wearing her Amazon clothes in her frequent rides on Zephyrus, the horse given her as a present by Antiope, an activity frowned upon by her mother.  For Polyxena, the rides are essential to her well-being.

These distractions from my daily routine were not seen as an option for me, but as a necessity.  Without them I would surely go mad.  So while I was willing to participate in the womanly assemblies, I knew full well that concession was not going to apply to my time spent with Zephyrus.

In one particular episode, Polyxena’s frustrations come to a head when she receives no support for her feminist views from the court ladies.  Helen had been punched in the face by Deiphobus, her husband after Paris, and accepts her ‘punishment’, despite Polyxena’s objections.

Was I wrong?  Even Helen herself had me thinking so.  What I knew for certain was that no Amazon would have ever stood for that….I said nothing more to Helen, feeling, in some measure, that she had negated my attempts in backing her.  So much for trying to stand up for solidarity behind womanhood.

These are modern day frustrations.  Polyxena clearly resonates with today’s readers in that respect.