For two years I’ve been writing a novel which involves some Greek mythological figures (my agent [still a new enough relationship for it to feel quite unreal] is going to send me final revision notes next week). Naturally I have been avoiding reading new fiction about Greek mythology, because I don’t want to inadvertently poach, and the novels I love by Mary Renault and Madeline Miller are enough for me to be inspired by, and to learn from.
Now I have a new one: The Double Tongue was William Golding’s last novel, a near-final draft discovered in his papers after his death in 1993, and published with his widow’s agreement in 1995. It’s set in the early years of the Roman Empire, in northern Greece, and is about the Pythia, the visionary maiden seer who gave oracular pronouncements at Delphi for hundreds of years. (There were of course a long series of Pythias, each one a suitable virgin with the right skills and apitude for receiving the god and speaking his will. In this novel some are less suitable than others.)
Arieka is a unloved younger daughter of good family living in a strict Greek home near Delphi. Her home is so close to the famous shrine that passengers on the ferry from Corinth routinely mistook it for the shrine’s outer settlement, until her father had a sign put up directing the hapless tourists in the correct direction.
Arieka is pestered by a loutish neighbour when they are children, and his persecutions ensure that her parents think she is wayward when in fact she is merely terrified and repelled. Her father agrees that the loutish neighbour may marry her, since the plain and shy Arieka is merely a burden in his household, and he does not wish to pay much of a dowry. Arieka is so appalled by this that she decides to run away. She sets off on a donkey, and promptly falls into the track of a stag hunt. She falls off the donkey when it is attacked by the hounds, and they are whipped off by her erstwhile affianced husband, and a very senior Priest of Apollo who is an old friend of her father’s. This might be regarded by the modern reader as merely unfortunate, but for Arieka and her very conservative parents it is a catastrophe.
She has been seen in public, by men who are not in her family. She has been seen unveiled, and with ripped clothing. In her father’s eyes she may as well have been prostituting herself in the local town. Her betrothed withdraws hastily from the engagement, and Arieka comes to realise (she is only fifteen) that she has ruined her future for ever. The other problem that her father cannot swallow is that Arieka’s reputation is already suspect in a different way. For Arieka has performed miracles. As a child she rescued a fish from the griddle (long story) and saved a child’s life from sickness by touching its head.
But the catastrophe turns into her salvation. Ionides, the High Priest of Apollo at Delphi, the most important shrine to the god in all of Greece, and the supervisor of the Pythion, has heard of Arieka’s miracles, and proposes to her father than Arieka enters the Pythion to serve the god. She will become the Third Lady, and will become the Pythia herself in time. Naturally Arieka’s father rapidly agrees, and her mother is merely thankful to get Arieka off their hands without more disgrace.
The publishers considered that in this late version of The Double Tongue Golding had developed the role of the Pythia fully to his satisfaction. The novel has a clear plot, and some terrific characterisation, and the first two-thirds feel nearly complete. The later third is woollier, with too much talking and not enough clarity on some of the political points concerning the impact of Imperial Roman power in Hellas, and the impotence of Greek politics to deal with Roman military superiority. The economics of running a prophetic shrine are highly persuasive, and Arieka is an endearing and shrewd narrative voice.
I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a worthy successor to Renault’s Greek novels, and to the narrative tradition of Naomi Mitchison, who pioneered the use of slightly posh colloquial speech as the voice of the upper classes in ancient times. For a Nobel Prize winner, Golding is a massively accessible novelist. I have not read The Lord of the Flies, nor do I want to, but every other Golding novel I’ve read has been superb. The Double Tongue is a keeper, even if it isn’t quite final.