CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 35. . . .May 9, 2014
Arrow Through the Axes completes Patrick Bowman's "Odyssey of a Slave" trilogy. In the first volume, Torn from Troy, 15-year-old Alexi flees from the Greek forces invading his home, the city state of Troy. He leaves behind his sister, who is lying unconscious, perhaps dead. He is taken captive by the Greek commander Odysseus (Ulysses), known to his men as "Lopex", the fox, who is heading home to Ithaca. Volume I, Torn from Troy, ends with a well-known episode from Homer's Odyssey, the encounter with the Cyclops. The second volume, Cursed by the Sea God, shows Alexi's experience of more incidents from Homer's great epic poem. Patrick Bowman's unique twists on some of these classic episodes are amusing and insightful.
Arrow Through the Axes begins with Odysseus' ship being wrecked in a storm, with everyone disappearing beneath the waves. Alexi, too, is nearly drowned in this storm, expressing the wrath of the sun god, Helios. He is rescued by Helios's lonely daughter, Phaith, who takes him back to Helios's Isle and treats his lightning burns. When Alexi realizes that she is drugging him to keep him with her and that she imagines that they will become a couple and have a child together, he escapes the island on a cargo ship carrying copper to Mycenae.
Mycenae, the city of King Agamemnon who led the war against Troy, is an armed camp but a place where Alexi would logically look for his sister since captured Trojans have been brought there as slaves. At this juncture, Bowman introduces the story of King Agamemnon, Queen Clytamnestra and their children, Elektra and Orestes. At Mycenae, Alexi disembarks to begin his search, sleeps in a doorway, and wakes in a palace dungeon. He hears the rumour that Queen Clytamnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed King Agamemnon by butchering him in his bath.
Mistaken for a seer, Alexi is brought to the queen to interpret one of her dreams. Off the top of his head, he says her dream means that her son will return. She shakes her head. Her son, she says, died long ago. Later that night, however, her daughter, Elektra, comes to Alexi to tell him that he must leave the palace immediately. There is a donkey cart outside which he can drive to the port.
En route, Alexi discovers a man in his late twenties hiding in the cart and beset by nightmares. He is Orestes who came home to avenge his father's murder. He has just killed Aegisthus, his mother's lover, who is also his uncle. This Hamlet-like character has a recurrent hallucination that he's surrounded by a flock of predatory bird-like creatures, the Furies, nipping at him. "They feed on guilt," he tells Alexi. The Furies are an excellent metaphor for attacks of remorse; indeed, Alexi feels persecuted by them when he broods about having left his sister behind in Troy.
On parting, Orestes advises Alexi to look for her in Sparta among the slaves brought back from Troy. He tells Alexi to convey greetings to his aunt Helen (his mother's sister) and her husband, King Menelaus. Here Bowman provides an encounter with another well-known legendary figure - Helen of Troy. Having recaptured her, the insanely jealous King Menelaus treats her as a slave. She is shackled, both literally and metaphorically, by her ongoing love for the late Trojan hero, Paris. It was with Paris that she eloped to Troy, taking Menelaus's treasury, and causing the Trojan War. Helen cannot help Alexi find his sister; in fact, Alexi winds up in a dungeon facing execution because Menelaus thinks he got too personal with Helen.
Reading Alexi's adventures in Mycenae and Sparta, I became impatient for him to reconnect with Odysseus. Coincidence provides a way. At the port of Pylos, Alexi meets Telemachus, Odysseus's son, who confides his family situation. His father, Odysseus, has never returned from the Trojan War. His mother, Penelope, has a house full of male guests who have made themselves too much at home, but to whom she must extend hospitality according to Greek tradition. These suitors are waiting for her to give up on Odysseus and marry one of them who will then acquire her property. Helen and Clytamnestra, two unfaithful wives, are a contrast to the faithful Penelope.
Bowman presents the highlights of Odysseus's return home in a suspenseful manner. Foxy Odysseus masquerades as an old beggar. His dog, now ancient and unfriendly, is excited and affectionate toward the beggar, and, after greeting him, falls dead. The "arrow through the axes" test is dramatic, and the eventual happy reunion of Odysseus and Penelope brings happiness to others. Two of Alexi's dreams come true.
The last line of the story speaks of the waste and pointlessness of war. Bowman shows the long-term damage of war earlier, too, when Alexi is travelling from Sparta to Pylos. He meets a pack of wild-looking children who, armed with spears and sticks, are attacking an old woman gathering wood. After driving them off with stones, he joins the old woman in her hut. She explains that 10 to 15 years earlier, the young men of her village went off to join in the war in the east. The young women left for the city to find husbands. Now the village is inhabited only by the very old and by packs of feral children.
Arrow Through the Axes provides much food for thought, as did the two earlier volumes of Bowman's trilogy. Bowman's aim was to create a version of the Odyssey that young people would read for fun, and he has certainly succeeded.
Ruth Latta's young adult novel, The Songcatcher and Me is available from firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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