Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Guest post and giveaway from Terence Hawkins, author of THE RAGE OF ACHILLES

Historical Boys is proud to welcome Terence Hawkins, author of the novel The Rage of Achilles. Praised by Tom Perotta, author of Little Children, as a "a genuinely fresh take on a classic text," this modern retelling of Homer's The Iliad has tells the story of Achilles, Paris, Agamemnon, and of the countless Trojans, Achaeans, warriors and peasants caught up in the conflict, their families torn apart by a decade-long war.

In celebration of the novel's publication, Mr Hawkin's publisher has kindly offered a book to giveaway. If you'd like to enter for a chance to win, please leave a comment. A random winner will be drawn from comments on November 10.

Now, please join me in welcoming Terence Hawkins!

The Rage of Achilles was intended as a realistic account of The Iliad. The natural first question is whether I think the Iliad is history or fiction. And the natural answer is both. The structure of the Iliad itself demonstrates that it was composed neither at one time nor by one person; rather, its creation spanned generations of bards. In some of its books, for example, iron is treated as a precious metal, which it unquestionably was in the earlier Bronze Age; in other books, however, it’s common enough for use as arrowheads. Also, a barbarian invasion and subsequent dark age separated the Trojan War from what we think of as classical Greece. So for a lot of reasons it’s entirely reasonable to place little faith in the Iliad as an historic record.

But it’s equally reasonable to believe that the Trojan War actually occurred. Archaeologists have discovered ruins at Hisarlik in Turkey that they’ve identified as Troy-multiple Troys, destroyed and rebuilt successively over thousands of years. One level, labeled Troy VIIa, shows evidence of having fallen at human hands-skeletal fragments with broken jaws and skulls, bronze arrowheads, signs of fire. This level has been dated to 1190 BCE, close to the time assigned to the war by the classical Greeks. It therefore seems safe to conclude that the Iliad is an unreliable account of an actual event. So an historical novelist has a free hand. Or so it would appear.

There is, of course, a problem. The gods. I wanted to stay as close to the original text as possible without violating the limited historical knowledge we have. But in the original almost every action is driven by divine intervention from a nasty and capricious pantheon. How to write a realistic novel in which every development is a holy practical joke? The answer is Julian Jaynes. As I started writing I remembered having read a review of a book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a title as facially specious as Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Which I not only possess but heartily recommend. In any event, Jaynes’ hypothesizes that the development of complex language provoked hemispheric dominance, so that the portion of the brain containing the speech center essentially overpowered the other half . Hemispheric dominance allowed abstract reasoning and the development of the modern self-observing consciousness. Until that point, Jaynes believed that humans were automata reacting to messages between halves of the brain, messages they perceived as the voices of the gods. Relying on both internal and extrinsic linguistic evidence, Jaynes placed this epochal transition at about the time of the Iliad.

Crazy? Maybe. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins said that the idea was either a complete crock or the greatest intellectual revolution of the twentieth century. The jury’s still out. (Interestingly, Jaynes also speculated that because both schizophrenia and religious experiences tend to involve “hearing voices”, both are the product of a malfunction of hemispheric dominance. As I worked on the book I spoke to religious friends who said they’d heard God’s voice; all described it as so loud and clear that they were startled that those around them didn’t hear it as well.) But in any event, the idea gave me a solution that was not a cheat: In The Rage of Achilles, the gods appear not as actors, but as hallucinations driving men to act, often not in their best interest. And it also allowed me to portray Odysseus as what he may have been-the first modern man, who realized that the voice in his head was only his own.

Another question was one of detail. I had in mind two opposite models, both favorites: Gore Vidal’s Julian, in which most attention was focused not on appearance or the mechanics of daily life in early Byzantium but the political, religious, and military considerations that occupied his character’s minds; on the other, George Garrett’s The Death of the Fox, so effortlessly rich in period that it might be a text. Here the decision was made for me by the comparative poverty of knowledge of Bronze Age Mycenae. If I were writing about Marlborough’s wars it would be easy enough to go to a museum to look at a dummy in russet velvet with a Steenkirk cravat stuffed through a buttonhole trimmed with Brandenberg braid. But Troy three thousand years ago? Not so much. So my decision, ultimately, was to allow the story itself, rather than the period in which it is set, to control the book.

Oh yeah-sex and violence. In the original the former appears not at all; the latter is as stylized as Kabuki. As to the latter the work’s first audience knew what war with edged weapons was like-been there, done that-so it was unnecessary for the bards to describe it. We, fortunately, don’t know what it feels like in the shoulder to pry a sword out of a head you’ve just split open. So in order to recreate the immediacy that the work first had I had to imagine it. Let me hasten to emphasize imagine-no headless corpses in my freezer. As to the former, the original was driven by sex: Paris, after all, didn’t commit the unspeakable crime of a breach of hospitality and kidnap Helen to gaze at her from afar. Boy wanted her, bad. And of course the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has been sanitized beyond reason, as though anything but what it was would have been natural in a bisexual cultural that had had an army on a foreign beach for ten years. All that said, the Iliad is a story of almost indescribable richness and humanity. I can’t hope I’ve done it justice; I do hope I’ve done it no offence.

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. You can visit him at:


Linda said...

This was a very interesting post; I esp. enjoyed the part about hemispheric dominance. I'm not nearly as familiar with Greek mythology as I'd like to be. This novel sounds like a very readable introduction. Thanks for the giveaway.

Mystica said...

I am not too familiar with the mythology and as Linda says this would make an ideal introduction.

I do not know whether this is open for overseas readers but if it is, please count me in.

franceshunter said...

This post is fascinating! I was not familiar with the theory about the rise of modern consciousness -- at least, I didn't realize that it was so comparatively recent in the evolution of mankind. What an amazing choice as a novelist to have the individuals, and society, operating under what we would consider mental illness, but that they considered perfectly normal.

It makes you wonder what realities that we perceive today may exposed as delusions by some future thinker! Your book sounds really interesting!

terence said...

Thanks for the interest and kind words. Jaynes' work has been emerging from relative obscurity, owing in part to recent developments in neuropsychology. Interestingly, he belives that the Odyssey is clearly the product of a modern mind or minds. Heady stuff---so to speak. I don't pretend to understand it---any more than I'm a classical scholar---but it's fascinating nevertheless.

Barb said...

It was interesting to read that this book is intended to be a modern retelling of the epic Illiad. Since I liked the Illiad when I read it in college, it seems that I would like this retelling of the story.

Please enter me into this giveaway. Thanks

bstilwell12 at comcast dot net

Carrie said...

The book sounds great - I love thoughtful historical fiction - and I can't wait to read it!

C.W. Gortner said...

Thanks to all who've left comments! In answer to Mystica's question, I'm not sure if the contest is open to overseas readers. I'll try to find out. Best of luck with the contest; we'll pick a winner on the 10th.

terence said...

Thanks for having me.