Dark Sayings

Thomas Jones

  • In the Shape of a Boar by Lawrence Norfolk
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £16.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 297 64618 4

In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor, the oldest by a generation of the Achaean chieftains at the siege of Troy, intervenes in the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, telling them they should listen to him because

You are both younger men than I,
and in my time I struck up with better men than you,
even you, but never once did they make light of me.
I’ve never seen such men, I never will again . . .
men like Pirithous, Dryas, that fine captain,
Caeneus and Exadius, and Polyphemus, royal prince,
and Theseus, Aegeus’ boy, a match for the immortals.
They were the strongest mortals ever bred on earth,
the strongest, and they fought against the strongest too,
shaggy Centaurs, wild brutes of the mountains –
they hacked them down, terrible, deadly work.
And I was in their ranks, fresh out of Pylos,
far away from home – they enlisted me themselves
and I fought on my own, a free lance, single-handed.
And none of the men who walk the earth these days
could battle with those fighters, none, but they,
they took to heart my counsels, marked my words.

The strength of Nestor’s appeal depends on his audience believing what he says about his past to be true, both in the sense that the events he describes took place and that they were as momentous as he claims. Facts are not enough: they need to be significant facts. A story where there is sufficient consensus regarding its significance for its facts (perhaps details would be a better word) to be transcended might be one way to define what constitutes a myth. Nestor mythologises his past in order for its significance to be felt by the younger warriors, even though by doing so he compromises the details and his story’s claim to be factual – not that such considerations would have bothered the Greeks too much. The Iliad exists in an uncertain space on the cusp between myth and literature; or rather it creates literature out of myth, the details making the poem discrete. This process, or a reduced version of it, can be seen at work in a passage in Book 9 of the poem, in which Phoenix, Achilles’ tutor, tries to persuade him to return to battle, and tells him the story of Meleager – or rather a story of Meleager, since it’s unfamiliar from any other source. Phoenix’ account is rife with parallels to Achilles’ position, and is too specific to a single, real (within the context of the poem) situation to be considered as a mythic account at all.

Lawrence Norfolk’s extraordinary new novel is, among many other things, concerned with the complicated relationship between history, myth and literature. It draws on the story of Meleager and the Kalydonian boar, a standard version of which, such as might be found in Ovid or a book of Greek and Roman myths and legends, would go something like this.

Oeneus, King of Kalydon, has omitted to sacrifice to Artemis, the virgin goddess of hunting. To punish him, she sends a huge and ferocious boar to ravage his land. His son, Meleager, summons heroes from all over Greece to help him hunt it down and kill it. The muster includes the likes of Jason (of Golden Fleece and Argonaut fame), Theseus (killer of the Minotaur, dumper of Ariadne) and his best friend Pirithous, Nestor (who later fought at Troy), Peleus (Achilles’ father), Meleager’s uncles and Atalanta, a virgin huntress and the only woman among them. They track the beast through woods and over mountains until they reach the edge of a bog, where their quarry breaks cover. At first the boar has the better of them, wreaking havoc and death among the heroes before taking off for the woods. But then Atalanta draws first blood with her bow – Jason and Theseus have been pretty useless, their javelin throws succeeding only in pruning the trees and killing one of Meleager’s dogs – and Meleager gets to play matador. After the kill he gives the carcass to Atalanta, because she drew first blood, and because he’s fallen for her. His uncles object to this, claiming the prize for themselves, so Meleager, with the short temper that tends to go with being a hero, kills the pair of them. When Meleager was born, the Fates put a log on the fire and said that it and the child would have the same lifespan. His mother, unsurprisingly, doused it and has kept it safe – until her brothers’ bodies are brought to her, when in her grief she kills her son by rekindling the log before taking her own life.

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