Sunday, November 03, 2013

Andromache's Plea

On Saturday 2 November 2013, Heffers bookshop sponsored the Second Classics Fact, Fiction and Children's Literary Festival, featuring luminaries like Mary Beard, Simon Scarrow and Lindsey Davis. One of the events was a balloon debate. Five of us were asked to plead the case of a character from Classical mythology and all but one of us would be chucked out of the balloon. I spent several hours crafting a moving plea for my chosen heroine, Andromache. I even brought a black scarf to throw over my head à la Leighton's moving painting.

Andromache in exile by Frederick Lord Leighton

I am Andromache. My name means Battle of Men
Though perhaps it should be battle of brothers
I had seven of them: a quiver full.
I had to be strong, growing up with that lot.
I heard them plan hunting trips as I sat at my loom
And my shuttle became a hunting spear 
in the thickets of warp and weft.

I heard them plan raiding expeditions as I sat at my spindle
And my winding skein was a file of men on a mountain path.

I saw them slaughtered by Achilles in one afternoon
Along with my father
While my hands were red up to the elbows
In a simmering cauldron of dying beetles 
with its floating strands of yarn. 

My life unraveled; the woe unwove me.
And when Artemis slew my mother
Nothing was left but an empty loom
A bare frame of my life… A taut spare web of grief.

Then you came, Hector. 
You became not just my husband,
But my father, my mother, my brothers.
You let me weave my unraveling weft 
into your strong warp.
And we became a new tapestry together. 
You took me away a place of happy memories
Made hateful by the son of Peleus
And you brought me to high-towered Troy.

We had a son, a little lord of the citadel.
I called him Astyanax, you called him Scamandrius
After the river where we once picnicked
A buzzing, honey-scented afternoon, among the asphodel.

My brothers taught me about the hunt
But you taught me about war.
You, and your house of strong women:
Hecuba, the matriarch
Cassandra, never afraid to speak her mind
Helen, the sister-in-law from Hades
Sparta, rather… Same thing.
And at the end Polyxena, who boldly went to her sacrifice.

The last time I saw you Hector, the time
you frightened our son with you horsehair plume
I begged you not to seek the thick of battle 
making me a widow and our son an orphan
But to guard the part of the wall by the wild fig tree
Where three attempts had previously been made
By the crafty Greeks. But did you listen to my strategy? 
No. You went out
And got yourself killed by Achilles.

Not long after that, they took our little boy up
the last remaining tower to throw him off.
But before they could lay hands on him,
he stepped into air of his own volition.
Lord of the citadel to the very end.
More courageous than a thousand Greeks.

And now the son of the man who killed my husband
My father and my seven brothers
Has taken me as his prize.
The psychopath son of Achilles, Neoptolemus: 
Red-haired, hot-headed, cold-blooded Pyrrhus. 

Hector foretold my future: 
To ply the loom for another woman
And carry a heavy water jug to and from the fountain.
Jostled by laughing children and happy families.
To remain childless 
or worse yet, bear children 
to a man whose house murdered my house.

I am a “paragon of misery”. 
I do not fear death. I pray for it.
Like my brave little boy, 
I would throw myself from the ramparts of Troy
Or even from your balloon. 
That would be true bravery.
But if you judge me worthy, 
I will do something even braver: 
I will live. 

props did not help me!
How did I do? Well, Prof Paul Cartledge cannily chose the Odysseus' faithful dog, Argos. How many British would vote to save a poor pooch being tossed from the balloon? A goodly number. Ruth Downie chose Dido and won the vote of all women who've ever been lied to and abandoned by a cad like Aeneas. (Quite a few, as it turned out.) Rugby-loving, football-referencing Harry Sidebottom plumped for Hector: thick but noble, (and doomed). He got a robust number of masculine votes. But the deserved winner was witty, Diet-Coke-fuelled Natalie Haynes, who moonlights as a stand up comic and Booker Prize Judge. She made a moving and impassioned plea for Odysseus.

As for me, Andromache, I got tossed out first.