The God Beneath the Sea

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CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER – 1970

The God Beneath the Sea

by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen

illustrated by Charles Keeping

Age: 12+

Interests: Greek myths

Longman Group Ltd: 1970

Next reads: Black Ships Before Troy, D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths

Other books illustrated by Keeping: Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary; The Highwayman; The Lantern Bearers

This is a brilliant, literary reimagining of the Greek myths. Poetic, violent and disturbing, it was written in an effort to update the tales to hook modern readers. Blishen and Garfield have drawn disparate myths together, providing causal threads to link them into a unified whole, and they aren’t backpedalling on the dark violence of the tales.

At first it was a tiny prick of light – as if the sun had gone too close and caught the immense blue fabric of the sky. It glinted and glittered and presently it was seen to be moving. Its light cast a great pool of gold on the darkening sea and a curious sound was in the air. A thin wailing that rose at times to a scream…

The sounds grew shriller, louder. The waves began to tremble and hasten hither and thither in a panic. It was coming… Then, for the briefest instant, the falling shape was seen quite clearly as it turned over and over in the air. It was a fiery, shrieking baby…

The book begins and ends with the tragic figure of Hephaestus, flung into the sea by his mother Hera on the day of his birth because he was so ugly. The myths are recognizable, but in this telling the overall message is bleak. The gods are deranged and violent, the foolish mortals below not much better. Nothing is done for a higher purpose, all acts are motivated by the basest of instincts.

Yikes. I guess the illustrations should have been my first clue that this wasn’t going to be your typical rendition of the Greek myths. This book is dark, very dark; the world it depicts is a seething miasma of jealousy, hatred, revenge, lust and fury. The gods are self-centred and greedy, unconcerned with anything but satisfying their desires. Zeus in particular is a psychopathic brute with a one-track mind and the power to take whatever, and whomever, he desires. Pretty much the only sympathetic figure in the entire book is Prometheus, who of course ends up having his liver ripped out daily by a snarling vulture. The female gods do not actually rape and pillage like their male counterparts, but they still spend their time glowering and plotting revenge, and Hera murders all of Zeus’ offspring she can find.

If it frustrates you to see the violence in ancient tales sanitized and Disneyfied, then this book is for you! The Daily Mail blurb inside calls this novel “lovely, sad, erotic and terrifying by turns”. There is a lot of gruesome imagery, gore, and sexual violence, which, while not exactly explicit, is still very disturbing. This novel is so dark it’s really only appropriate for older readers. On the other hand, the originality of the vision and the startling style of the prose (and Charles Keeping’s illustrations) makes this a truly memorable read.

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Night after night [the Furies] came to visit Cronus, till his sleep hung in tatters and through every rent came the hateful words, ‘Cronus, you will be ruined by your son! There is no escape!’

A wind blew through the king’s head and all the exposed caverns of his mind began to ache and crack. Nothing comforted him – neither his throne nor his queen. All was swept aside by the nightly terror of the Furies and the threat of the unborn son. Despairingly, he embraced Rhea; then, with a cry of dismay, thrust her from him as he remembered that out of this chief consolation would come his chief danger.

Yet he could not endure without her, and at last she bore him a child. Proudly she brought it to him in swaddling clothes. The Furies’ words roared a gale through his head. His hands shook and madness finally seized him. He took the infant almost tenderly from the queen and thrust it, living, into his gigantic mouth. Then he laughed till his stone palace rocked on the mountain top. He had cheated the Furies.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. damonisherwood
    May 19, 2017 @ 16:55:32

    It is a superb book. The follow up, ‘The Golden Shadow’ is equally good!

    Reply

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.