"New takes on old tales: Stories of love and danger, from The Iliad to The Merchant of Venice"
August 26, 2001
by Bella Stander
by Adele Geras
Shortlisted for a Whitbread Award, this novel will come as a welcome surprise to anyone who struggled or snoozed through The Iliad.
Adele Geras, author of The Egerton Hall Trilogy, brings the ancient city of Troy and its residents to blazing life, and as she makes achingly clear, times may change, but the horrors of war don't. The story takes place during the final weeks of the 10-year Trojan War and centers on two orphaned teenagers: Xanthe is nursemaid to noble warrior Hector's son and also tends wounded soldiers in the "Blood Room." Younger sister Marpessa is a gifted weaver and handmaiden to the fatally beautiful Helen.
In complications that recall Shakespeare almost as much as Homer, Eros causes Xanthe to fall in love with self-centered Alastor, while Aphrodite makes him and Marpessa fall in love with each other. Additionally, storyteller Polyxena is smitten with stableboy Iason, who only has eyes for her best friend Xanthe. But this is the siege of Troy, not "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and so tragedy rather than farce ensues, though there is a ray of hope after the shattering climax.
Geras honors Homer's interpretation of events, complete with the gods taking part in the action, but also provides a more prosaic view, such as that the war was caused as much by King Priam's demanding higher shipping tolls as it was by his son Paris' running off with Helen.
A memorable read, but graphic descriptions of violence and destruction are not for the squeamish.
The Edge on the Sword
by Rebecca Tingle
You never know where the idea for a stirring, coming-of-age tale can be born -- even in "a dusty corner" of Oxford's Bodleian Library, where Rebecca Tingle first read about the warrior queen Aethelflaed in Old English.
The eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed (rhymes with "apple glad") married the ruler of Mercia and after his death allied with her brother, Edward, to defeat the ever-invading Danes. Here Tingle vividly imagines the sort of youth that could have produced such a "formidable" woman. Growing up in the 10th Century kingdom of Wessex is far from glamorous: Even princesses slog through the mire and have to mend their own shoes. One perk that 15-year-old Flaed has is that her father (who revived literacy in England) insists that she learn to read and write, which enables her to pore over tales of ancient heroes and retell them to her brother. The downside to being a princess is that she has no say in her own destiny, so Flaed must accede when Alfred promises her in marriage to Ethelred of neighboring Mercia.
She rebels against having a constant bodyguard, Red, only to learn firsthand that her father's enemies are terrifyingly near. Subsequently, Red teaches her to defend herself with knife, sword and shield, whether mounted or on foot. En route to her wedding, Flaed suddenly finds that she must put into practice everything she has learned -- and then some -- about warfare, leadership and loyalty. Move over, Xena!
Rowan Hood, Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest
by Nancy Springer
After sympathetic yet brooding portraits of villains Mordred and Morgan le Fay, author Nancy Springer offers a sunnier and more heroic tale.
Finding her half-elf mother dead at the hands of the "castle folk," 13-year-old Rosemary takes off into the forest in search of the man she was told is her father, Robin Hood. To make life as an outlaw easier, she disguises herself as a boy.
Pretty soon Ro is adopted by a huge wolf-dog, who not only snatches arrows out of mid-air for fun but saves her from the murderous Guy of Gisborn. She also encounters enormous, baby-face minstrel Lionel, through whom she receives a precious gift from her elfin kin. Ro finally meets up with Robin, but to join his band she must either fight him or be an apprentice, neither of which she can accept, so she tearfully elects to go off alone.
By chance she and Lionel rescue young Lady Ettarde from being married off against her will. After lying low in the forest, the three daringly spring Robin from the clutches of the sheriff of Nottingham. By book's end Ro -- now renamed Rowan Hood -- sheds her masquerade and comes into her maternal heritage. With the sudden addition of a mysterious, nameless youth, she officially forms her own outlaw band, which "might somehow help folk to help themselves . . . rather than just giving them gold stolen from rich men's packs."
Rich with natural lore and spiced with appearances by legendary characters, this is a real winner. Springer leaves the door wide open for a sequel.
by Mirjam Pressler, translated and with an afterword by Brian Murdoch
(Phyllis Fogelman/Penguin Putnam)
Audiences have been laughing for centuries at Jewish moneylender Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," but as German writer Mirjam Pressler demonstrates in this heart-wrenching reinterpretation of Shakespeare's classic, life for Jews in late-16th Century Venice was no comedy. By law they could live only in the ghetto, were forbidden to buy "sumptuous" goods like flowers, and the men had to wear identifying clothing. And always there was the threat of violence from the Catholic majority.
Shylock's pretty, motherless, 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, chafes under these restrictions, along with additional ones imposed by her stern, pious father, and easily falls under the spell of sweet-talking nobleman Lorenzo. At home she becomes increasingly moody and disobedient, and picks fights with serving girl Dalilah, who narrates some of the chapters (and in Shakespearean fashion goes off disguised as a boy).
Meanwhile Shylock is pressured into making a huge loan to Lorenzo's anti-Semitic friend Antonio, who offers the famous pound of flesh as security. In the ultimate betrayal of her faith and her father's trust, while the household is at services for the Jewish New Year, Jessica robs Shylock's secret strongroom and elopes with Lorenzo. A broken man, Shylock mulishly insists on having his day in court when Antonio defaults on the loan, and is even more crushed when he is meted "Jew's justice" and ordered to convert.
The Bard ends Shylock and Jessica's tale there, but Pressler takes it (and Dalilah's) a step further, thus mitigating Shylock's defeat and Jessica's triumph. A rich counterpoint to Shakespeare, and thought-provoking reading for the High Holy Days.
© 2001 Bella Stander