The Arrow of Apollo by Philip Womack
“Right’s anvil stands staunch on the ground
and the smith, Destiny, hammers out the sword.
Delayed in glory, pensive from the murk,
Vengeance brings home at last a child,
to wipe out the stain of blood shed long ago.”
― Aeschylus: The Oresteia
We always keep an eye on the projects that publisher Unbound tells us about, and this one caught our eye! The Arrow of Apollo by Philip Womack is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War; one of the great conflicts of both history and mythology, that saw the city of Troy burned to the ground by the Achaean coalition. Very little has been written about the children of the warring adults who caused this war; in Philip Womack’s book three young teenage protagonists face troubles both from the past, and the present.
The gods are leaving the earth, tempted by other worlds where they can live in peace. Only a few retain an interest in the mortals left behind, including Hermes, the messenger god, and Apollo, Lord of Light. Other, darker, more ancient forces are wakening, and threatening to overcome the land. The Arrow of Apollo draws freely on Greek and Roman myth to tell us the story of three teenage protagonists forced to come together to face the darkest god of all, the serpent-god Python. The only thing that can save the world is the Arrow of Apollo; but it was split into two long ago. The Arrowhead was given to the centaurs, and now, somehow, it must be united with the Shaft.
Knowing her love of mythology and monsters, we sent bookseller Tamsin Rosewell to find out more from author Philip Womack.
Tamsin: Can we talk first about mythology and the notion of truth? I hear people talk about mythology as if it was simply a collection of old stories; but I think there is far more to it than that. While science, human knowledge and our living environment have all changed over millennia, mythology tends to hold its shape. Do you think we can say that mythology contains a deeper truth about humanity than other forms of storytelling?
Philip: When my son (who is 2 and a half) asked me yesterday why it was hot, I explained that it was summer; I then attempted to give an explanation about the earth and the sun and how the earth revolves on its own axis and then spins round the sun. The explanation did not particularly satisfy him, so I then told him the story of Persephone and Demeter, which he loved so much that he asked for it three times in a row. I think we respond to truths in myth on a very basic and primal level, because we are able to understand them as non-specific paradigms. Of course my son does not actually believe that summer happens because Persephone is in the underworld, but it resonates with him on that deeper plane. It works much the same way with fairy tales – a child can respond to Little Red Riding Hood in a much more complex and significant way than being told simply to be wary of strangers. I think also that the best forms of storytelling do utilise mythic structures and patterns. We must be careful though because myths have been written down and retold in so many forms that we don’t know what the original was, in a similar way to fairy tales, which were altered and modified for bourgeois audiences. But I do think we can say that mythology does contain deeper truths because it reflects our psychology and our culture. For Athenians watching, for example, the Oresteia on the stage, they were engaging with a kind of psychodrama as well as a story about their own origins and the origins of law and the taming of humanity into civilisation. Whereas if you were watching a comic play by Aristophanes, there’s something much more specific going on.
Tamsin: Almost all of the oldest world religions revolved an around an entire pantheon of gods and goddesses, demi-gods, muses and many creatures that drift between worlds; but today the dominant world religions are monotheistic. Do you think that the old gods have lost their power to impress us, have they just become stock characters we no longer understand as part of religious belief?
Philip: That’s a very interesting question. The Christian God – I’m re-reading Paradise Lost at the moment – is so monumentally perfect – which makes him very difficult to write about – that he is almost outside of literature. There’s a reason Satan is so fascinating. The Greek gods and goddesses are recognisably human, with all our foibles and jealousies magnified. I think that the Ancients were very much more aware of the potential power of these capricious gods – whenever they appear in literature people are struck dumb or they feel the physical effects of their presence. We must also remember that there were many who did not believe in these gods, in their own times. I think we also need to remember that many of the attributes of gods and goddesses were taken on by saints – I am pretty sure I remember that there is a St Dionysus, for example, though I’m not sure how much he has to do with the god. Popular culture has run the gods through the mangle – we’ve seen them living among us, being mocked, being reduced to telling fortunes and so on. But there is still the notion that latent power lies within them – we are impressed by Hermes, even if he’s delivering parcels to us. If you think about Titania and Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream (who arguably are kind of demi-gods) – they bicker and trick each other, but their actions also have a direct and measurable effect on the weather. I think that we can also say that many people see the various Greek gods as emanations of the divine – in other words, that Aphrodite was an aspect of God’s love. So I think that we are still very much aware of the nature of these beings, even though they have been ‘Disneyfied’ and so on.
Tamsin: The Trojan War as is a really interesting setting as it is part history and part mythology. Tell me about the landscape you created for the children of ancient heroes. Is it based on the real sites at Hisarlic and in Mycenean Greece or ancient Rome – or have you imagined the landscape?
Philip: The Arrow of Apollo is set in Mykenai, in Greece; Lavinium in Italy; and the three main characters make a journey to Troy. I did a lot of research into the world of Agamemnon and the civilisation of the Mycenaeans, but for Lavinium I just used my imagination based on visits I’ve made to the woody hills of Latium. I alas have never been to Troy – I’m hoping that my next book advance will allow me to do that, but it’s rather putting the cart before the horse! As it’s set in a quasi-mythical world, I have used a certain amount of imaginative latitude – partly because I’m not trying to say “This is actually the year 1100 BC” – but also because I wanted to retain that sense of the mythic. Homer himself (or however many bards Homer was) has elements of the bronze age and the iron age all mixed up, so I think it’s fine when you’re dealing with something so far away in time to have a bit of leeway.
Tamsin: Can we talk about language? The tales of Troy have come down to us with the epithets and ionic dialects of the European bronze and iron age that suggest it was told orally. When you are embedding these events and characters in English for a modern reader, how do you keep a sense of the antiquity? Do you need to? If we re-wrote these tales in, for example, the colloquial language of Jacqueline Wilson, would they still have the same energy? What we call colloquial is, in effect, a way or oral storytelling I think. What language choices did you make?
Philip: With The Double Axe, which was set in the world of the Minotaur, in the palace, I found a certain heightened and literary language worked very well. Don’t forget that the oral epics were told in heightened language – they were the “high style”. With The Arrow of Apollo, I have used quite a straightforward mode of storytelling, but with a literary flavour, trying to keep the grandeur and strangeness of things. I think that if you did try to tell them in a colloquial way, you would lose something, but you would also gain something. There’s an idea – the Trojan War retold from the viewpoint of a soldier’s young servant. It’s very difficult though – because which of our many colloquial styles would you choose? And how would you avoid becoming almost immediately outdated? When people in historical fiction say “OK”, I wince. But then you don’t want people to be saying “Hail and well met O chieftain!” So I’ve gone, I hope, for something in between.
Tamsin: Staying on language for a moment, all of these stories come to us from other, much older languages. The teaching of old languages seems to be out of favour in educational thinking at the moment; even most private schools no longer teach Ancient Greek. I was taught Latin, but even then, back in the early 1980s, that was talked about as an ‘old fashioned’ approach to education. While we clearly don’t lose the stories from these times, as we have so many in translation now and they are hugely important to current literature still, do you think we do lose something by not teaching these languages?
Philip: Language – the study of Latin and Ancient Greek – is I think so important. Firstly to connect with the actual words – you don’t get the same flavour with a translation, however good. It just gives you such a wonderful rush when you can read a sentence of Virgil or Ovid and think – that was written two thousand years ago, and it is still alive. I think so many people think of Latin as boring and old fashioned and fusty and, dare I say it, pointless. But if we stopped studying Latin, we would be cut off not only the ancients, but also the enormous body of work written in Latin right up until the 20th and even 21st century. I’ve spoken to a couple of friends who are now in documentary production who say that they wish instead of learning Greek and Latin verb tables they’d been able to study Arabic or other languages because it would have been more useful. And that’s fair enough – but you can’t predict what you will want to do in later life, and I think if you start talking about education as being useful then you get into very rocky terrain. I don’t think studying Latin prepares your mind or is any more or less rigorous than say Maths or Physics, but I do think it opens doors into worlds that are endless and alive. It requires persistence, of course, and I am so glad that I also teach Latin and Greek, because every year I feel myself learning more, and also being aware of just how much there is to savour and discover. I’ve been re-reading Catullus’s magnificent poem, no 64, which starts with the Argo and ends with the end of the Trojan War, all compressed into a few hundred lines, and you just add more and more layers of understanding every time you come to it. And there is something about Ancient Greek on the page – when you finally crack Plato, for example – which is almost otherworldly. At least, for me!
Tamsin: Tell me about Python. Mythology tends to have complex gods and heroes who are all shades of good and bad, who also have failings and who misuse power. Is Python wholly bad? What does he look like? Are the departing gods also monsters to those they abandon?
Philip: Python is the snake that Apollo once killed – he is a huge monster. In my version he is the serpent (ie, the dragon), that tempts Eve, the embodiment of evil. He can shapeshift and do all sorts of things. The departing gods are not monsters because they are still worshipped – it’s just that they don’t answer prayers.
Tamsin: I learned my mythology first from Roger Lancelyn Green – I still have all the books! Who set you off on this quest, who have been the writers, storytellers, film-makers and illustrators who have been in your mind as you’ve set about creating this world?
Philip: I could answer this question for hours! I hope you’ve got the time… So when I was about four or five, I think, my mother acquired an Usborne book of Magical Creatures, which had in it the story of Bellerophon. I was immediately and completely enchanted (and I read the same book to my own son). My father, when he was ten, I think, was given a very dry and erudite book about Greek mythology for Christmas; his sister was given a watch. My father always tells the story that whilst the watch was lost, the book endured, and when I was about ten I made my way through this book – a huge hardback, telling in quite scholarly and obscure detail all about Greek myth from its origins to the labours of Heracles. I loved it, and like many ten year olds, avidly absorbed all of its details. At about the same age I went to boarding school, and there used to be a bookshop that came I think once a month. They sold Penguin copies of The Iliad and the Odyssey, and I was captivated by the covers – a chariot race and Circe turning Odysseus’s men into animals. So I bought them, and consumed them. They were the E V Rieu translations, which are quite dry for a 10 year old, but I loved them. I’m not sure how much went in, but it definitely shaped and formed my knowledge. Roger Lancelyn Green was a huge favourite, too – especially The Luck of Troy, which I adored because it had a boy hero. Then of course there is the Ray Harryhausen film of Jason and the Argonauts – I remember seeing it and being mightily impressed by Poseidon rising out of the waves to hold the Clashing Rocks apart. And then I was lucky enough to do both Latin and Greek at school, so it was Homer and Virgil all the way. I’ve always had a hunger for Aeschylus – there is something so absolutely raw and wondrous about the Oresteia – I remember being taken to see all three plays put on, one after the other, in the Young Vic, and it made an enormous impression on me – I realised how vital and powerful these stories still are. More recently, after university (I think looking for something a bit easier than Aeschylus) I devoured the novels of Mary Renault, who I think really has something rich and special to say about myth. And we are very lucky to be living in a world where there are so many writers and artists engaging with the myths.
Tamsin: There are mythical creatures in your world too. Tell me about one of your non-human characters.
Philip: I very much like my centaur, who is the last centaur – the rest have gone off to another planet. He’s called Starwatcher, and he starts the novel by racing with a message towards the gates of Lavinium, where Aeneas’ son, Silvius, meets him.
Tamsin: It does feel today as if we live in a land deserted by the gods, with rising forces of darkness. Would it be fair to ask if the Arrow of Apollo, in its own way, explores our own politics and morality?
Philip: Funnily enough there is a bit of politics in the book, as Orestes has to deal with various forces working against him in his palace. I think there is an awareness in the book that things are complex. Morality is certainly an issue – there are some quite difficult questions there, for instance to do with Orestes and his son and Orestes’ new wife – who is the daughter of the man Orestes killed.
Tamsin: Let’s leap into the real world and talk about publishing! Why did you choose to work with Unbound to create this book?
Philip: I wanted the book to be a very specific kind of thing – hardback, with maps and a genealogy, and Unbound, because the system allows you to specify things like that, seemed like a very good idea. The books that they design and publish are so beautiful and I’m really looking forward to holding the finished copy in my hands. I also think that children really respond to that – they liked having something that’s weighty and that looks beautiful.
Tamsin: Is there anything else you wish I’d asked?
Philip: Can I tell you about Elissa, who in my book is the daughter of Anna Perenna and the niece of Queen Dido? What I’d really like to do, if I had the time and the resources, is to map together all the connections between Greek myth and the Bible, and to look at the years in which they connect – Dido is Jezebel’s great-niece! How amazing is that? But I think that’s a project for my old age, or if I win the lottery. Here’s hoping…