Monday, May 12, 2014

The wanderings of Alexi

Last October, I mentioned the problem I was having: a big hole in the third book. The original Odyssey, after all, is about this guy named Odysseus, who wanders the seas for ten years, trying to get home. Of those ten years, he spends seven on the island of Calypso the nymph. And therein lay my problem. And as I mentioned in that post, although my purpose was to re-tell the Odyssey, I knew Alexi couldn't spend seven years on the same island with only Odysseus and Calypso. Now that would be boring!

What to do? Separate him from Odysseus, obviously, and give him some other adventures, until the time comes for him to arrive back on Odysseus's home island of Ithaca just in time to see Odysseus arrive, and all the events that come from that. But that's awkward too. I'm trying to re-tell the Odyssey, and jamming in other, unrelated stories might feel contrived. After discussing it with my sister (Laurel Bowman, professor of classics at the University of Victoria and my personal story consultant), I settled on making him encounter some of the other famous characters from the Trojan war and share in their adventures. These adventures are described in the Nostoi, a long-lost collection of stories about the other Greek heroes of the Trojan war and what happened to them when they went home. Eventually, Alexi encounters Odysseus's son Telemachus and hitches a ride with him to Ithaca, not knowing that all hell is about to break lose as Odysseus himself gets home.

Many reviewers and teachers - these books have turned out to be quite popular in classrooms, a mixed compliment if I ever saw one - will know some of these stories, but others won't. So I've decided to draw back the curtain a bit here and talk about some of Alexi's adventures in the third book, and how they tie in with the Greek legends that triggered the war. This post will be a multi-parter. Tonight I'll talk about the adventure on the island of Helios, the sun god.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Arrow through the Axes yet, what I'm about to write will give away some of the plot. It's fine by me if you want to keep reading, and in fact it will help you appreciate some of the subtleties when you do read it; just don't be surprised later when you're, er, not surprised.

Okay, for those of you still with me, on we go. After the shipwreck, Alexi finds himself back on the island of Helios. The Greeks aren't there any more, thanks to that same shipwreck, so it's just him and his rescuer, Phaethusia (which conveniently shrinks to "Phaith"). In the original, she and her sister Lampethie (which I wrote as Lampethia) live on the island looking after the cattle of their father Helios, the sun god. Why does a sun god need cattle? Beats me. Even today, in primitive societies a man is known by the cattle he keeps, and bronze age Greeks were pretty primitive. Anyhow, cows.

Alexi is kept as a semi-prisoner by Phaethusia, who is hoping he will come around and see the benefits of staying with her. After all, she's trapped on the island herself by her father, with nothing but cattle and her sister for company. A cute boy of about her age? Woo-hoo!

Eventually, her sister shows up and helps Alexi escape. He catches a ride with another Greek ship that has landed on the island, strenuously persuading them not to kill any of the cattle, and gets transported to the centre of bronze age culture, Mycenae.

The big point here is that this chapter closely parallels what is happening to Odysseus at just the same time. After the shipwreck, Odysseus is washed up on an island and rescued by Calypso the nymph, also a powerful sorceress, who is going stir-crazy for lack of company, especially male company. She keeps him a prisoner on the island for seven years. Eventually, Athena leans on Zeus to force Calypso to set him free. He builds a raft and escapes.

In both cases, the hero is washed up on or rescued back to an island by a lonely young woman with powerful magic, who exerts her influence to keep him there for her benefit. (In the Odyssey, not surprisingly, things get a lot hotter and heavier between the two. But I'm writing YA fiction, which means that bloodshed is fine, but sex is right out. Go figure.) Eventually, another member of the extended family shows up and helps the hero escape by sea. I could have made the parallels a lot tighter - having Alexi build a raft to escape, for instance - but I thought the desperation of  persuading the Greek sailors to leave before sunup, when Helios will spot them there, was a lot more compelling. So we have, in that chapter, a little recreation of almost exactly what is happening in the Odyssey at the very same time. I'm kind of proud of that.

Next installment: the encounter with Orestes, son of the dreaded king Agamemnon who started the war.