[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
Partway through The Arkadians, Lloyd Alexander indulges an in-joke. Joy-in-Dance, the novel’s heroine, explains that during Arkadia’s golden age, mighty enchanters roamed the land. When she lists these mythic figures, they happen to possess Hellenized versions of names from three of Alexander’s earliest works. “She’s setting the scene very nicely for us,” declares one of her companions, ignorant of this rare wink to the reader. “It’s no doubt one of those tales of sentiment and tender feeling.”
The pleasant confusion of storytelling is, in fact, the entire point of The Arkadians, Alexander’s 1995 novel set in a variant of ancient Greece that’s all the more exciting for its strangeness. Here, the Trojan horse was actually a donkey, Odysseus’s wife wasn’t happy to see him, and American Indians rule the northern plains. With subtle but obvious glee, Alexander reshapes the world of Greek myth as if it’s been filtered through a child’s toy box, painted by Maxfield Parrish, and cast as Shakespearean comedy. The result is an amusing cast of oddballs that includes a befuddled clerk, a real live muse, a poet-turned-jackass, and a professional scapegoat. Each one has a reason for seeking help, Oz-like, from the mysterious Lady of Wild Things—and each one has a story to tell.
Those secondary stories told by the characters are the true delight of The Arkadians. Surprisingly playful for an author in his early 70s, Alexander whips up a prose pastoral romance, complete with digressions just lengthy enough to hold the interest of young-adult readers. Some of these stories are personal histories that retell episodes from Homeric epics. Others are creation myths, including one that reworks the Judeo-Christian story to make the loss of Paradise the fault of the male. Some tales are literally true, while others are shown to be blatantly false. As Lucian, the novel’s hero, tries to explain how he fled the royal court, his friend Fronto, the poet-turned-jackass, demands that he improve his biography:
“Conflict, struggle, suspense—that’s what’s needed to make a tale move along. You don’t just run off. They seize you. You fight them with all your strength, almost win; but they bind you hand and foot, get ready to chop you up with meat cleavers. You escape in the nick of time. I don’t know how. That’s a technical detail.”
“It didn’t happen that way,” Lucian protested.
“My point exactly,” said Fronto. “All the more reason to spice it up. The meat cleavers are an especially nice touch.”
Thanks to these sorts of knowing exchanges, The Arkadians becomes Lloyd Alexander’s clever and self-deprecating commentary on the human impulse to invent and embellish. Even as the novel’s heroes grow increasingly honest about their own stories, they learn that other people simply can’t help themselves: Catch-a-Tick, a starry-eyed young satyr, joins their fellowship, sees what he wants to see, and mythologizes their adventures on the spot.
To say more about The Arkadians would spoil its surprises, especially the in-jokes for readers of mythology. Snake prophets, talking animals, star-crossed lovers, shipwrecks, magic temples, feckless monarchs, goddesses and gods—Alexander recombines these classic elements of storytelling to illustrate such virtues as loyalty, love, mercy, and humility and to emphasize, as Shakespearean comedy often does, the complementary natures of women and men.
Alexander’s glee will displease dour nitpickers who don’t understand that the best myths are destined to mutate. Dogmatically respecting a myth’s provenance? Seeking its literal meaning? None of that, Alexander suggests, is particularly fun; joy in the telling is better by far. As Fronto, the poet-turned-jackass, aptly concludes, “If a storyteller worried about the facts—my dear Lucian, how could he ever get at the truth?”