A friendly reminder to everyone that, unlike many bloggers who mysteriously stop blogging, I have NOT disappeared. You can find my work periodically on the Pinkerton’s Ghosts youtube channel.
But enough of that now. Today we’re here to discuss something else. I found a new book! Normally not news, except that I REALLY, really loved this book.
Seriously. This is the best book I’ve read in years. I was blown away. I read it in two days, sneaking peeks at it on break at work.
That book is “The Eighth Arrow”, by Fr. J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.
The plot is straightforward: Odysseus is in Hell, specifically, he is trapped in the Hell of Dante’s Inferno with his friend, Diomedes. One day two living shades pass him by and ask him how he got there. The sight of their footprints gives him his first spark of hope in 3000 years, and he begs Athena Parthenos for help. The Parthenos appears before him and makes him and Diomedes a deal: If he and his companion can bear witness to the nine rings of torment and learn the limits of Hell, they may yet see the light of Heaven. As the Parthenos tells them:
You will not be ready until you have discovered – and used – the eighth arrow. The Authority has willed it. This is to be your purgation and final labor.
Let’s not mince words here: This is an absolutely fantastic book, written with enough subtlety and wit to make Odysseus proud. First off, it’s almost effortlessly funny, like this early exchange between Odysseus and Diomedes:
Diomedes was silent a while longer while I strained at my sword. Then he drew a deep breath. On the rare occasions when he contradicted me, it always began with a deep breath. “Odysseus,” he said, “I followed you around the world and back. In all that time, I never doubted your judgment.”
“Look where it got us.”
He had a point.
It’s also incredibly clever. If you have any fondness for the epics of Homer or Dante’s Inferno – and I freely admit to being familiar but by no means an expert on any of them – this book is a delight. If you’re hoping to see someone, they almost certainly show up (with the only surprising absence being Achilles, for some reason). But it’s more than that. The writing has a subtlety to it.
Take Athena Parthenos. When they first meet her, she specifically tells them, “You do not even know my true name.” Throughout their time in the Underworld they will invoke the name of Athena, and the response is always in the vein of Chiron – mocking laughter.
However, when they invoke the Parthenos, people sit up and take notice. They even get scared. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps it will make sense when you translate “Parthenos” into its English equivalent: The Virgin.
Yet Odysseus himself never makes this connection, and it goes unremarked. But it’s there for those who pay attention. Similarly, Odysseus never figures out what the bread he receives from Athena is. But it brings life to the Underworld shades, causes Hades to cower, and is feared by the fallen – and even the neutral – angels. Coming from a Christian background, you can probably guess – but it is never stated explicitly.
The arc of Odysseus throughout the story is extremely well-done, as he slowly realizes that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is and being known for being the greatest liar in antiquity is nothing to be proud of. His interactions with Diomedes are always entertaining as well, as Odysseus resents him for being far less intelligent than he is but also far more popular and well-liked, as well as a generally better man.
There’s also a lot of room here for theological speculation. Fr. Wetta makes it clear both before and after the book that this is not meant to be a theologically accurate portrayal of Hell, from which no man can escape. But there are things to talk about regardless. Why is Odysseus granted the opportunity? Perhaps because of the death of Christ and His harrowing of Hell. Maybe it opened up an opportunity for repentance formerly unavailable to the pre-Christian souls. Also, Odysseus can’t leave until he is at least partially embodied. The particular judgment happens at the moment of death, but we know people have been raised from the dead by God. Perhaps they can leave now when they formerly couldn’t because they are no longer dead.
Mostly though, this is quite simply an incredibly fun and exciting adventure story. It’s going to be an uphill battle for me to dislike any book that climaxes with an army of Greek heroes and reformed monsters battling it out with an army of Satan’s minions in the final circle of Hell. This is the sort of book the Superversive tradition was made to talk about, and I can’t give it a higher recommendation.