BOOKS

Voices of the gods

A novel explores the power of ancient deities

John Bemrose October 16 1995
BOOKS

Voices of the gods

A novel explores the power of ancient deities

John Bemrose October 16 1995

Voices of the gods

BOOKS

A novel explores the power of ancient deities

THE DOUBLE TONGUE

William Golding

(Penguin, 165 pages, $29.99)

When the British Nobel laureate William Golding died in 1993, he left among his papers the draft of a short novel set in ancient Greece. Recently published as The Double Tongue, the tale is inspired by the questions about civilization that animated Golding’s entire career, ever since he burst onto the literary scene in 1954 with his memorable first novel,

Lord of the Flies. That book focused on a group of English schoolboys stranded on a desert island, where they soon shed their veneer of gentility and revert to their savage selves. The Double Tongue is also, in its way, about savagery— the elusive and uncontrollable savagery of an ancient Greek god,

Apollo. The novel explores the ways in which cultures depend on the powerful and irrational energies such gods represent—as well as the ultimate futility of trying to control them. Fierce, wise and starkly original, The Double Tongue— even in its unfinished state—is one of Golding’s finest achievements.

The novel takes the form of a reminiscence by an old woman, Arieka. For 60 years, she has been a prophetess at Delphi, the famous religious site northwest of Athens. Known to the ancients as the centre of the earth, Delphi, with its spectacular mountain setting, was believed to be haunted by Apollo, god of the sun and patron of truth and music. He spoke prophecies—always in ambiguous, “double-tongued” language— through the mouths of prophetesses such as Arieka, and was widely consulted on matters both great and trivial.

In Arieka’s time—roughly the first century BC—Delphi has fallen into decline. The golden age of Athens and Greece is several hundred years in the past, and the Mediterranean world is now ruled by the militaristic Romans.

As a 15-year-old girl, Arieka is recruited from her parents’ home by Ionides, the high priest of Delphi, to become one of Apollo’s prophetesses. A sophisticated, cynical Athenian, Ionides plans to use Arieka to help him restore Delphi’s (and Greece’s) greatness. Ionides does not believe in the gods himself, and he is disconcerted to learn that Arieka does. Much of The Double Tongue is devoted to the conflict between these two, as the worldly priest tries to control the wayward girl who insists on being true to the presences she experiences in Apollo’s sacred grotto.

The novel never explains exactly what those presences are. But by recreating Arieka’s story from the young woman’s point of view, Golding accomplishes the almost impossible task of showing what an experience of the gods might be like in a culture that actively believes in them. To Arieka, the gods are far more than the literary metaphors for eternal human passions that they represent for moderns. The first time she enters the dark sanctum of Apollo’s shrine, Arieka is assaulted by mysterious forces. She hears demonic laughter and emerges stunned, bleeding and exhausted.

The contemporary psychological explanation for her experience would be that Arieka has been gripped by a kind of hysteria. But this is only to give a scientific name to a fundamentally inexplicable process: in effect, it explains nothing. A god, Golding demonstrates, is a violent, uncontrollable presence that can erupt from the depths of the human psyche. Having an unmediated relationship with one of these forces (those New Agers who sentimentally invoke the Olympian gods might take note) is about as safe as sticking one’s head in a jet engine. The Double Tongue suggests that the ability of the ancients to connect with such energies was part of their greatness—a form of power the current technological age scarcely recognizes.

JOHN BEMROSE