Tuesday, October 4th, 2016
I am thrilled to be able to announce that my second novel, narrated by Circe, the witch from the Odyssey, is in the hands of my US editor, Lee Boudreaux. The book is scheduled, as of now, to come out in the US early in 2018, published by Lee Boudreaux Books, an imprint of Little Brown. I am delighted to be working with Lee again, who was my editor for The Song of Achilles, and can’t wait for Circe to find her way to the shelves. More news as it comes–including, very soon, news on the UK edition!
Wishing you all a happy beginning to autumn!
Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
In my last post, I talked about Vergil’s Pyrrhus as the epitome of the very worst of human behavior. Happily, Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is the opposite: a celebration of our most conscientious, best selves.
The play in which he co-stars, Philoctetes, is cleverly set before Troy falls, before the death of Priam. This allows Sophocles to avoid the entire second half of Pyrrhus’ life—almost as if he is offering a “reboot” of the young man’s story, an alternate line of destiny. Certainly, by the play’s end, it is difficult to imagine Pyrrhus killing Priam as he does in the Aeneid.
The play begins with a prophecy that Troy won’t fall unless Heracles’ bow fights on the Greek side. Unfortunately, Heracles’ bow is with Philoctetes, whom Odysseus had abandoned on an island with a festering wound ten years earlier. Odysseus must go get the old soldier and persuade him to put aside his resentment and aid the Greek cause. He cleverly decides to bring Pyrrhus with him: as Pyrrhus was the only man who didn’t come with them to Troy originally, he is also the only man not implicated in Philoctetes’ abandonment—so Philoctetes may be persuaded to listen to him.
Odysseus tells Pyrrhus that he is to pretend that he hates the Greeks, in order to gain Philoctetes’ trust. If the old soldier will not co-operate, Pyrrhus is supposed to wait until he falls into a festering-wound fit, and then either steal the bow and arrows, or carry him off to the boat while unconscious.
Given what we know of Pyrrhus from Vergil, we would assume that he happily agreed, pausing only to club Philoctetes with somebody’s child first. But Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is a different man. He is appalled by Odysseus’ treachery, and reproaches him for using deceit. Such tricks, he says, are not in his nature, just as they were not in his father’s. He refers here to Achilles’ reputation for honesty, demonstrated by his famous line in the Iliad that he “hates like death the man who says one thing, and hides another in his heart.” Such a man, of course, is Odysseus. He and Achilles are perfect foils—youthful honesty-to-a-fault balanced against practiced, shades-of-grey pragmatism. Sophocles here has Pyrrhus take his father’s place as Odysseus’ opposite.
Yet, because he is young, and impressionable—and because Odysseus is a master at persuasion—Pyrrhus reluctantly agrees to the plan. This is the genius, I think, of Sophocles’ characterization: Pyrrhus is a young man looking to find his way in the world, without a father’s guidance. Although his instinct is to spurn Odysseus’ methods, he has no other model to adopt, besides a vague rumor about his father’s values—a father he has never met. Maybe Odysseus is right, after all. I think it perfectly captures those first, unsure steps into adult identity.
But Pyrrhus is in luck, because for a young man looking for a role model, it is hard to do better than Philoctetes. The two meet, and Pyrrhus finds himself instantly drawn to the older man’s plight, character and dignity. When the moment comes to defraud Philoctetes, Pyrrhus hesitates, torn between his duty to the Greeks and his own instincts. Movingly, he exclaims, “I wish I were back in Scyros!” He feels tainted by the moral compromises of the adult world, and longs to return to the simplicity of childhood. Yet, he cannot return, and is pressed hard on both sides by Odysseus and Philoctetes.
Sophocles stacks the deck against Odysseus a bit here—for although we see Pyrrhus’ dilemma, the right choice seems obvious—if he is to keep his soul, he must help Philoctetes, and reject Odysseus. But playing devil’s advocate, let’s examine Odysseus’ motive, which is, always, to serve the army’s greater good, and to get himself home again safely. If Pyrrhus forces Philoctetes to come to Troy, Philoctetes will be miserable—but an entire army’s worth of soldiers will be able to return home again. In the Iliad, we see the dire consequences of Achilles setting the personal over public good—what does it mean to save a single person at the expense of an entire nation?
Sophocles, however, doesn’t make Pyrrhus suffer the consequences of his choice: as soon as he has agreed to help Philoctetes, the god Heracles appears to pacify his old companion, and order him to Troy. It is almost as if the entire episode were an elaborate test, a moral gymnasium designed to help an young man practice his path.
Pyrrhus—both Pyrrhuses—had an interesting afterlife, including a notable cameo in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When the players arrive, Hamlet recites a speech about Pyrrhus’ killing of Priam, where Pyrrhus stands over Priam with his sword raised and, for a moment, “does nothing.” Here Pyrrhus becomes a stand-in not only for Claudius—killer of the old King—but for Hamlet himself, stuck in his own inaction.
For a more recent portrait of Pyrrhus, I would recommend Mark Merlis’ audacious novel, An Arrow’s Flight, which tells the story of Pyrrhus’ struggle to separate himself from the reputation of his bloody and distant father. I admire this novel not just for its storytelling, but its flat-out daring: Merlis takes the story of Pyrrhus (drawn mostly from Sophocles’ play), and puts it straight into the modern world, while still retaining all the ancient Greek structures, the gods included.
And, by the way, Pyrrhus also makes an appearance in The Song of Achilles. My take on him is decidedly Vergilian.
Thanks so much to myth-lover Susanne for the terrific suggestion! Next week: Ancient Greek romance, just in time for Valentine’s Day….
Monday, December 19th, 2011
Today’s myth of the week is one of my very favorites, though I didn’t discover it until college. When I graduated from high school, my Latin teacher had given me a book of Sophocles’ tragedies as a gift, and I was steadily working my way through it. Somewhere in the middle, I came to one called “Philoctetes.” Who?
This was before the days of Google, so I got out my trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary and learned that Philoctetes had been a close companion of Heracles. Maybe the closest: when Heracles was dying in agony, he begged his friends to put him out of his misery; Philoctetes was the only one who had the guts to do it. In gratitude, Heracles bequeathed Philoctetes his famous bow, with its arrows dipped in the poison blood of the hydra.
But that was just the beginning of Philoctetes’ story. Years later, he joined the other heroes of Greece in pursuing Helen of Sparta’s hand in marriage. By then he was renowned for his connection to Heracles, and also for his deadly archery. And though usually in the ancient stories a bow and arrows are considered the weapons of a coward (as with Paris), you never hear a single word against Philoctetes. Heracles’ bow would have been enormous, and only a true hero could have strung and drawn it.
As a suitor of Helen, Philoctetes must have seemed out of place among the other men. He was a generation, or more, above them, and I imagine him as weathered, dignified, and still full of stoic grief for the loss of his famous friend. It was unlikely that such a man would tempt Helen, and of course he did not. But he did, along with all the other suitors, swear to uphold her marriage to Menelaus.
Which is how, some years later, he found himself summoned to Troy to get her back. Despite his age, Philoctetes upheld his oath and, paired with Odysseus as a sailing partner, the two men and their fleets began making their way to Troy. Like all Homeric journeys, there were frequent stops on islands along the way, and on one such island, Lemnos, Philoctetes was bitten by a terrible viper. He didn’t die, but the wound festered agonizingly, stinking and causing Philoctetes to fall into seizures. Odysseus, practical as ever, didn’t want a smelly, hideous, screaming man on the ship, so he persuaded the other men to abandon Philoctetes while he slept.
When people ask me why I don’t see Odysseus as a straight-up hero, this myth is one of my answers. Odysseus’ pragmatism here seems indistinguishable from ruthlessness: he abandons an aging hero, in excruciating pain, on a deserted island without any supplies of food or water. When Philoctetes wakes, there is only empty beach and his bow. Ten years of lonely, crushing pain follow. In describing these years, Sophocles is at his most moving. As in Oedipus at Colonus, and Ajax, Sophocles once again shows himself the champion of those who have been cast out from society, who feel themselves betrayed and abandoned. Philoctetes’ bitter monologues are absolutely piercing in their indictment of a society that would throw away its elders because they have become inconvenient. No matter how many times I read them, I always find myself caught up anew.
Fast forward ten years, after Achilles has died but before Troy has fallen. The Greeks learn from a prophecy that they will never take the city of Troy unless the bow of Heracles fights on their behalf. In Sophocles’ play, the Greek leaders dispatch Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ young son, to go get Philoctetes (in other versions, Odysseus’ partner is the tricksy Diomedes). Odysseus’ plan is to send Neoptolemus in as mediator because Philoctetes doesn’t know Neoptolemus, and is less likely to shoot him on sight. Neoptolemus is supposed to engage the old man in conversation, wait for him to fall into a fit, then steal his bow and arrows. After all, reasons Odysseus, the prophecy never said that it needed the hero, only his weapons.
But Neoptolemus finds himself drawn to the old man’s dignity, and moved by his suffering. When Philoctetes falls into a fit, he does not take the bow, only holds it until Philoctetes recovers, then returns it, chastising Odysseus: “It is far better to be just than wise.” Still enraged by their betrayal, Philoctetes refuses to help the Greeks. Just when all seems lost, the god Heracles appears, urging his old friend to relent, and promising Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy he’ll find a healer—Machaon, son of Asclepius—who can end his agony. Philoctetes, obedient to his friend, agrees. Once at Troy, Philoctetes helps to take the city and, most importantly, kills the prince Paris—one archer slaying another. He survives the war and returns safely home.
What makes this such an interesting tragedy is that, in the end, it isn’t one. Thanks to Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is welcomed back into society. The middle-aged Odysseus is inveterate, set in his ruthless ways, but there is still hope to be found in the innocent and clear-eyed gaze of youth. It also offers hope in the form of forgiveness. Philoctetes could indeed make the Greeks suffer as he has suffered; but in the end, he does not. I love his story so much that I found myself constantly having to battle the temptation to include it in my novel. There are several Philoctetes scenes that got left on the cutting room floor simply because they didn’t fit, but one cameo remains.
I am not the only person who has been moved by Philoctetes’ story over the years. He is the subject of a Wordsworth sonnet, and Sophocles’ play forms the core of the amazing “Philoctetes Project,” which brings this play and others to army veterans. At the other end of the spectrum is Disney’s “Hercules” which features–sort of–Philoctetes as a character. The satyr voiced by Danny Devito was inspired, I can only guess, by some unholy combination of Philoctetes and Chiron, plus some goat thrown in. He calls himself “Phil.”
The Myth of the Week is going to take a vacation next week, but will return in the New Year. I wish you all very happy, myth-making holidays!
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto