28 May 2006

Arkadians lives and legends

Lloyd Alexander tends to take his inspiration from the mythology of different cultures, and in The Arkadians he draws on the legends of ancient Greece. However, his inspiration is equally the anthropological explanations for those legends that have taken hold over the years, such as saying that people imagined Centaurs after mistaking mounted riders for man-horse combinations (as if horse heads are easily concealed or ignored).

Thus, the Arkadians episode in which characters must wrestle bulls gets yoked both to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and also to the bull-leaping tradition of ancient Crete, known through archeology. The novel implies that the maze Theseus must traverse is inspired by the crooked and winding streets of an unfamiliar town, and so on. Some characters have classical names, such as hero Lucian. Others are literal translations of Greeks names, such as his love interest Joy-in-the-dance (Terpsichore).

A few recognizable Greek legends appear as stories: moral tales, after-dinner entertainment, tribal self-justifications. Fronto the poet responds to these storytelling episodes with the sort of nitpicky criticism we now usually find in blogs like this one, and (nonetheless?) protagonist Lucian decides that his role in life will be that of storyteller.

This can't help but have a debunking effect on the book's fantastic elements. When the Odysseus archetype speaks of a one-eyed blacksmith and we recognize that anecdote will be transmogrified into the horror of the Cyclops, we naturally worry less about actual monsters threatening our growing group of travelers. When characters justify stories by their entertainment value rather than as truth or even routes to spiritual truth, then the ancient Greek legends seem to hold no more weight in this novel's universe than the novel itself has in ours. Most of the “magic” we see in The Arkadians appears to be hypnosis or wishful thinking.

And yet that poet Fronto has been turned into a donkey. A talking donkey. The character who most promotes the idea that Greek myths have been puffed up by audience-pleasing storytellers is also the novel's one undeniable example of magic. And magic based in an overweaning supernatural/spiritual force in the world. It feels like Alexander wasn't sure which approach to Greek mythology pleased him more, the replication or the unmasking.

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