Friday, 6 April 2012

FANTABULOUS FRIDAYS A-Z: C FOR CENTAUR WITH MADELINE MILLER


Scribble City Central's sixth Fantabulous Friday comes from Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles, which I made my Book of the Year for 2011.  Here's what I said about it:
This is one of the best retellings I've read in years (if not ever), and that's why I'm making it my Book of the Year. For a debut novel, it's extraordinary - and I think we may have a new Mary Renault on our hands here. Yes, she's really that good. Madeline Miller has brought alive the old story of Achilles and Patroclus (the book is told from Patroclus's point of view), and given it a fresh and interesting angle. She clearly knows her Homer and associated sources, but what I really appreciated was the deft, spare beauty of the writing itself. I hope Bloomsbury know what a treasure they've got here, and I'm hoping this one will win prizes in 2012. It surely deserves to. If you only buy a single book on this list, make it this one.
Madeline really knows her myths, which pleases me no end, and so I'm delighted to pass you over to her for her fascinating and informative piece on
Photographic credit: Nina Subin

C for Centaur
                           Hooligan of the Ancient World
MM: If Greek mythology had a villain, it would be centaurs. These savage creatures, with the torso of a man and the body of a horse, were the ancient embodiment of all the worst parts of human nature. As a child I found them much more frightening than monsters like the chimera or the hydra because unlike them, centaurs might be anywhere. In the ancient myths, they are constantly crashing into people’s lives, breaking up weddings, assaulting women, and murdering innocents.

Centaur misbehavior was so well known it was actually immortalized on the metopes, the marble panels that adorned the Parthenon. At the wedding of the Lapith King Pirithoos (a close companion of Theseus), the centaurs who had been invited got drunk and tried to carry off the bride and other women. A huge battle ensued, and eventually the centaurs were defeated. Such depictions of fights with centaurs became so popular that they actually had their own name—“centauromachies” (literally, centaur fights).
The barbaric behavior of centaurs (kentauroi) might be traced back to their ancestor, the wicked King Ixion. Ixion attempted to rape the goddess Hera, but was prevented at the last minute by Zeus, who substituted a nymph named Nephele instead. She bore a monstrous child, Kentaurus, who depending on the myth was either the first centaur, or who mated with horses and produced the first centaur.

Maybe the most famous centaur story is the one about Heracles and his wife Deianeira. The two arrive at the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus has set himself up as the ferryman. Heracles boosts Deianeira onto Nessus’ back, but rather than taking her over the river, the centaur starts to run off with her. Heracles pulls out one of his hydra-poisoned arrows and shoots Nessus who, before dying, whispers to Deianeira his apologies and says that she should gather up a bit of his blood. Then, if she ever doubts her husband’s faithfulness, she can give him some of it, and it will make him love her again. Deianeira foolishly believes him and does indeed slip her husband some of the poisoned blood. Heracles dies in agony and Nessus, in death, has his revenge.

All of this might make you wonder what it is about centaurs that I find appealing. I can answer you in a single word: Chiron. This learned centaur has always been one of my absolute favorite characters in Greek mythology, as gentle, just and wise as his cousins are barbarous. In fact, vase painters would often depict him as having a full man’s body with only two horse feet behind, just to show how different he was.

Chiron’s name comes from the Greek “cheir” meaning hand, a reference to his skill at surgery, a word which itself comes from the Greek “cheirurgos,” literally “hand-worker.” He was also gifted in music, prophecy, hunting, and many other arts, and became the teacher and tutor of numerous ancient heroes. His charges would eventually include Jason, the great doctor Asclepius, and (most relevant for me) Achilles. He was one of the few ancient immortals who was always benevolent and generous to us messy humans.


Given that my book covers Achilles’ entire life, including his education at the hands (hooves?) of Chiron, I knew that I would be including him in my book. At first, I will admit, I was a bit daunted. But Chiron quickly became one of my favorite characters to imagine and write, and I particularly identified with him as a teacher, since that’s what I am. Here’s some of what Achilles and Patroclus learn from him:
That day, after we ate, we joined Chiron for his chores. It was easy, pleasurable work: collecting berries, catching fish for dinner, setting snares. The beginning of our studies, if it is possible to call them that. For Chiron liked to teach, not in set lessons, but in opportunities. When the goats that wandered the ridges took ill, we learned how to mix purgatives for their bad stomachs, and when they were well again, how to make a poultice that repelled their ticks. When I fell down a ravine, fracturing my arm and tearing open my knee, we learned how to set splints, clean wounds, and what herbs to give against infection.

On a hunting trip, after we had accidentally flushed a corncrake from its nest, he taught us how to move silently, and how to read the scuffles of tracks. And when we had found the animal, the best way to aim a bow or sling so that death was quick.

If we were thirsty and had no waterskin, he would teach us about the plants whose roots carried beads of moisture. When a mountain-ash fell, we learned carpentry, splitting off the bark, sanding and shaping the wood that was left. I made an axe handle, and Achilles the shaft of a spear; Chiron said that soon we would learn to forge the blades for such things.

Chiron has been a popular figure in both art and literature, and pops up in a number of modern works. John Updike’s “The Centaur” is based on the life of Chiron, and Chiron also features in Elizabeth Cook’s novel “Achilles.” He is a character in the Percy Jackson series, and I like to think that the Classics-loving J. K. Rowling was inspired by Chiron in her portrait of the wise centaurs (Firenze especially) in the “Harry Potter” series. Chiron even appears in astronomy and astrology, immortalized as the constellation Sagittarius.

So, yes, C is for Centaur. But, more importantly, it’s for CHIRON.

SCC: I've always loved Chiron too, Madeline, but you're right - centaurs are generally quite scary beings. Thank you so much for visiting Scribble City Central - and after reading that lovely extract,  I hope lots of people will now go and seek out your wonderful book. 

Next week: John Jackson, author of Tales for Great Grandchildren talks about C for Chhepu (and I bet you've never heard of one of those!)



3 comments:

Nicky Schmidt said...

As somebody who shamefacedly admits to being totally rubbish when it comes to Greek Mythology (which is why, dear Lucy, I'm so loving these posts), I've always found the centaurs fascinating. But now, I realise, the reason why is because the only one I ever really read about was Chiron, who quite clearly swept away all his cousins' wrong-doing. Brilliant post, Madeline, and thank you so much for the lesson in centaurs!

catdownunder said...

Centaurs, apart from Chiron, scare me too. We cats usually keep well away from them - but I rather like Madeline Miller's version! Thankyou.

Book Maven said...

Michelangelo depicted the battle of the lapiths and centaurs in one of his early marble panels.

I highly recommend Halo by Zizou Corder as a recent YA novel with loving and protective centaurs, who can also fight when necessary.

Great post, Madeline!

 
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