CHILDREN OF TANTALUS &
THE ROAD TO THEBES
(Tapestry of Bronze series)
by Alice Underwood and Victoria Grossack
These books are a fascinating foray into the world of Greek mythology. The writers have succeeded in taking the ancient legends of Pelops and Niobe and re-telling them as exciting and romantic novels. Pelops, the younger son of King Tantalus of Lydia, chooses exile after being attacked by his own father, and his sister Niobe runs away with him to escape a forced marriage. Their subsequent adventures take them to Athens and then to Pisa, where King Onomaius is challenging all suitors for the hand of his daughter Hippodamia to a chariot race. If they are beaten, their lives are forfeit and their heads are exhibited on stakes in front of the palace. In a thrilling account of the race Pelops, aided by Niobe, who arranges to sabotage the King’s chariot, wins, kills Onomaius and takes his throne.
From then on Pelops’ behaviour becomes increasingly unstable and autocratic, while Niobe’s apparently hopeless love for the the musician Amphion takes centre stage. We are introduced to the complex politics of the various city states and the varying characters of their rulers, which are woven into the ‘tapestry’ of the series’ title. There are enough plot twists to keep you turning the pages and the characters are vivid and sympathetic enough to make the reader care about their fates.
My only reservations arise from the sense that, in making their story appealing to a modern reader, the authors have lost the sense of strangeness, of a very different way of life and system of belief, that we get from the myths themselves. The gods are frequently mentioned and the need to honour and appease them motivates the actions of the protagonists; temple building and animal sacrifices are important ways of placating them. But I missed the sense of all-consuming power which placed religious ritual at the very heart of society. This was an era when, not many years ago, the King was ritually slaughtered every spring and his blood spread on the fields. Also, I feel that the character of Niobe, appealing as it is, does not completely fit the period. In their effort to create a feisty heroine to fit modern tastes the writers have given her competences that I do not believe a woman of that period could have had. Niobe is brave and intelligent, which could be true of a woman of any era, but her scepticism about religion and her ability to organise complex building projects seem to belong to the modern world.
Perhaps as a writer who has immersed herself in a study of Mycenean civilization, I am unduly critical. These caveats apart, I can recommend these books as an enthralling excursion into a world which is, sadly, becoming less and less familiar.