For all of his association with retellings of Welsh mythology, author Lloyd Alexander also had a long standing love for Greek mythology. In the mid-1990s, this love inspired The Arkadians, a novel loosely based—some would say very loosely based—on Greek mythology.
As the novel begins, a Greek city finds itself caught between two cultures and preyed upon by two corrupt soothsayers. To fix this, naturally, the young hero must travel all over Greece and even head out to Crete, picking up witty companions and a true love along the way. As one does. To brighten matters up, in this case, the hero is also travelling with a poetic jackass.
Alexander uses the theory that Greece was originally inhabited by a Great Goddess worshipping matriarchy that was later invaded/superseded by a Sky Father worshipping patriarchy. (Feel free to duke this out in the comments, but for the purposes of this post, let»s just say that this theory has been greatly debated, although it did form a basis for numerous fantasy works of the 1980s and 1990s.) This, and one of those always questionable prophecies so easily subject to misinterpretation starts off the book, as two Evil Soothsayers of the Bear People decide to take advantage of the prophecy and the depression it creates in the king to rid the world of the “pernicious influence of the Lady of the Wild Things.” This just happens to include seizing more power and money—and remove anyone who might stand in their way, such as a young clerk, Lucian, who discovers a small issue with the accounting.
Soon Lucian is on the run, accompanied by Fronto, a poet turned into a donkey, or as Alexander cheerfully and frequently reminds us, a jackass. They flee their way through ancient Greece and the Mediterranean—just happening to encounter a lot of mythology along the way. Their group grows larger and larger, soon including a lovely girl called Joy-in-the-Dance (expect romance), a young boy called Catch-a-Tick (expect continued annoyance), a scapegoat called Ops (expect surprising leadership skills), and a certain mariner named Oudeis with a penchant for telling lies (expect a very patient wife).
It»s all warm-hearted and hilarious, if more than often rambling and a touch unfocused. Part of this comes, of course, from its inspiration—the Odyssey and other myths referred to here were not always told in a straightforward way, and Alexander adopts this approach, pausing his narrative to tell various stories drawn from Greek myth. Part of this comes from the problem that many of the characters really have no goals other than to wander around—oh, Fronto would like to be human again, and Lucian would like to be safe and with Joy-in-the-Dance, and Catch-a-Tick would like to experience adventures, but for the most part, these aren»t very specific goals, at least not until Fronto is given a possible way to turn back into a poet.
Even then, the journey is continually interrupted by storytelling and detours, because, naturally, when you are on the run in Greece, you are going to run into various mythological figures all eager to give what we can probably call alteredversions of their stories. I particularly enjoyed the revised ending Alexander suggests for the Odyssey. Not that the characters always find the storytelling enjoyable or inspiring: after hearing the not exactly heroic story of the siege of Troy, for instance, Fronto complains that it»s just about “a grubby lot of provincials,” adding, “That doesn»t exactly pluck at the imagination.” Lucian, who by this point has learned more than a bit about storytelling, suggests embellishing the story a bit—using a thousand ships, topless towers, that sort of thing. Fronto is delighted to realize that Lucian has learned the fundamentals of poetry.
And one of the detours nearly results in getting everyone killed.
Sprinkled here and there are some none too subtle statements about prejudice and its dangers, on both sides. The women who follow the Lady of the Wild Things have good reason to be distrustful of the Bear People, but this distrust also means that they have difficulty finding potential allies. Alexander does not make the mistake of presenting either the Bear People or the cultures they oppress as unified in their approach—or, for that matter, completely good or completely evil. His solution—to have a leader with a father from one culture and a mother from another—is not, everyone recognizes, a complete solution that will miraculously solve all problems, but it may be the best that everyone can do. His other solution is an again none too subtle emphasis on dialogue above all—which works only, as the characters recognize, if everyone is willing to engage in the dialogue. Not everyone is. The only thing that does gain universal agreement by the end of the novel is a strong respect for the written word and an insistence that knowledge and wisdom should be written down, not kept in oral form. Alexander was, after all, a print author.
My favorite bits of the novel do not, however, have anything to do with culture clashes and post-colonial solutions, but rather center around Fronto, the poet turned into a donkey. Most of this, frankly, feels like a cheerful excuse for Lloyd Alexander to put “jackass” and “poet” into the same sentence, along with expressing some of his thoughts (often less than complimentary) about poetry and poets:
“I»m not a jackass. I»m a poet, though some might call that one and the same.”
“Unlike poets, most people get upset over apparent impossibility.”
“My dear Lucian, no human being is more miserable than a poet who has lost his inspiration.”
“As a poet, I»m accustomed to the seamy side of life.”
“Originality?” Fronto shuddered. “Heavens, no. Why risk upsetting anyone?”
“If a storyteller worried about the facts—my dear Lucian, how could he ever get at the truth?”
“You are a poet,” said the Lady, “and much foolishness is to be expected.”
And more, lots more. If you are a poet, you will either adore this book or want to throw it against the wall.
Fronto also provides most of the book»s best lines and insults, with comments like this regarding the mostly former king Bromios:
“It»s rather like having a tame bear for a pet,” Fronto observed. “You can»t help being fond of him, but you keep wishing he were a cat.”
It all adds to the fun.
Is it perfect? No. For a short book, it has far too many characters, to the point where Alexander finds himself having to remind readers who specific characters are and their background, and even with that, distinguishing one character from another can be tricky. It»s not helped by Joy-in-the-Dance»s insistence on calling Lucian “Aiee-Ouch,” in an initially cute joke that becomes progressively more irritating as the book continues. And speaking of progressive irritation, I found Alexander»s decision to give some characters “name” names (Lucian, Fronto, Asterion) and other characters descriptive names (Joy-in-the-Dance, Catch-a-Tick), progressively distracting.
But these quibbles aside, this is a fun romp through a Greece that never really was. Poets are warned; all others should enjoy the journey.
Mari Ness, it must be admitted, has been found guilty of committing acts of poetry from time to time. She lives in central Florida.