Goodbye Mycenae

GreeceOctober10 153 With the publication  of The Silver-Handled  Knife, the last in my Girls of Troy series, it’s time for me to say goodbye to Mycenae and the world of  bronze-age Greece. The story I tell finishes as Orestes and Hermione, now his wife, take the throne of Mycenae, , along with Tisamenos their son. In my story, Tisamenos is adopted; Hermione can’t have children, and Orestes is anxious that there should be no child of his blood to continue the cycle of revenge that has darkened the story of the house of Atreus. This is purely my interpolation, though it makes sense in the story.Actually, in the legend, Tisamenos is the last ruler of the house of Atreus, being deposed by the ‘sons of Hercules’ – and indeed it seems that th epalace at Mycenae and all the bronze age palaces in Greece were destroyed at the same time, around 1200 BC. Sea Peoples or Dorians have traditionally been regarded as the destroyers, though historians really don’t know what happened and there’s almost no  evidence.  The famous Lion Gates at Mycenae were apparently built very late, not long before the destruction of the city, which suggests that the Mycenaeans  were very conscious of defence.

At any rate, the Mycenaean civilisation was followed by a long dark age, about which we know very little. When the lights come on again, in around 850 BC, Homer is composing his famous epics, and we’re in the early classical times. Writing is re-invented,  Homer’s poems are eventually written down, and the stories of the gods and goddesses are as we know them centuries later. This is the Greece that’s familiar to us.

My stories, which include occasional visits from the gods, are historical fantasies rather than accurate depictions of the past. And I mix my sources – some elements come from the Greece that Homer knew, and some from the few things we know about the Mycenaeans. But I hope they feel right to the reader. At any rate I’ll be sorry to leave ancient Greece, where I’ve spent many happy months. And where do I go next? Who knows? As they say, it’s in the lap of the gods.



Greece At last

greek 2

For most people,  Greece is the most obvious and commonplace of tourist destinations. But I’d never been until just a few years ago, before all the present troubles. I went for history, not sunshine, which was just as well, since it rained for most of our time there.

It was Mycenae that fascinated me most. So old, so mysterious. It seems to have been a civilisation with such charm; the elegant frescoes of long-tressed  maidens, or snake-hipped graceful youths, the pottery playfully decorated with swirly octopuses, the delicate gold jewellery, the finely-chased swords. You can even see what they looked like now; in the museum there they’ve made reconstructions of the faces of some of the royals who were buried there; their surprisingly ordinary and familiar faces look out at you across centuries.

But one thing is missing – only one thing though it’s a big thing. For years their writing was a mystery . But now it’s been  decoded, and what have we got? Shopping lists. Lists of tribute items, but essentially shopping lists. No stories, no poems, no prayers, no dedications. No names. These kings and queens, for all their elegance and sophistication are nameless and unknown.

Other civilisations at the time told stories – and wrote them down. The Egyptians left lots of stories. We know about Gilgamesh and Jehovah, and we feel that the people who wrote these stories down took pleasure in the telling.

So what happened to the Mycenaean stories? They must have had stories – it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Maybe they wrote them on a material that didn’t last. Or – more likely – they were simply told orally, handed on and on by word of mouth , for the hundreds of years the civilisation flourished.  And the problem with oral tradition is that once the voices die, then so do the stories.
After the Mycenaeans died out so did their scratchy laundry-list script. It wasn’t till many hundreds of years later that another generation of Greeks rediscovered another more adaptable form of writng and at last started to write those stories down. But by then so many years had passed that it was myth they were writing about, not history. Perhaps there really was a king called Agamemmnon and perhaps he really was killed by his wife, having come back from a long war. Perhaps. We’ll never know. Without those stories the Mycenaeans are just blurred ghosts.

Made me think how important stories are – fiction, history, myth. A civilisation without them is only half a civilisation.  And it’s nice sometimes for us writers, in these days of publishing doom-and-gloom to realise that we’re part of that great story telling web that stretches back to….well, not to the Mycenaeans. If only it did.

Visible or Invisible?


When I was young, I knew nothing about the lives of the writers I read so avidly; Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Kate Seredy (does anyone else remember The Good Master?)  Noel Streatfield, Pamela Brown… They were all remote mysterious beings to me.  There were no websites, no blogs, no school visits in those days, just books ranged austerely on library shelves, usually with  the dust jacket which might at least had managed an author photograph, lacking.

Only Enid Blyton gave us a carefully edited glimpse into her happy life in Green Hedges with Gillian and Imogen,  except that I never really believed in her existence. So many books came out in her name, I felt, even as a child, that she must be a committee. Anyway she was never a favourite.

As for writing to one of my idols, it just would never have occurred to me. If I had done, I guess I would have tangled myself up in Dear Miss So-and-so, and hoping they would forgive me etc etc.

How different it all is now. Even J.K. Rowling can be looked up on her website – fans can at least get the illusion they’re in contact with her. Lesser mortals visit schools, hold workshops, answer emails. If a young reader contacts me, they’re more likely to start the letter with ‘Hi Frances’ than  ‘Dear Miss Thomas.’  And good for them – as long as they spell my name correctly, (Francis is a bloke) I don’t mind at all.  I think it’s all to the good that  writers and the people they write for can come together in this way.  That a child who might one day want to write can actually meet, and ask questions of,  the adults who manage to do it.

But I don’t think I  could ever shake off my hero-worshipping attitude. Some years ago, meeting Judith Kerr at a party, I could only gush vacuously about how much we loved Mog  – and that wasn’t even my generation of readers, but my daughters’.   Nowadays,  I like to know all about the writers I read; I’m very happy to tuck myself into a biography of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, though what I know, or don’t know doesn’t usually affect my enjoyment of their books – it’s a rather low-grade curiosity, I feel. As an adult, I don’t especially want to meet other writers, unless I’m going to like them as human beings. But it’s different for children ; it’s nice for them to be close to the magic, even if they take it for granted, don’t even realise it’s magic.

In my adult life, I had two encounters with the writers of my childhood. One, a good review of one of my books from Geoffrey Trease, was one of the proudest moments of my life – I wanted to dance and sing around the living room, Geoffrey Trease liked my book! Geoffrey Trease liked my book!  Of course I had to write to him and thank him. But I tore up several attempts; I couldn’t get the tone right, couldn’t say, without gushing, just how extraordinary it was for someone I’d idolised as a child – and whose books were one of the reasons I wanted to write myself – to encounter me as an adult and award me this accolade. In the end, I think I wrote rather a dull little letter – Dear Mr Trease, Forgive me but… or something. Well, I was never going to write Hi, Geoffrey, was I?

And the other occasion was even stranger. At a writers’ event, someone whom I’d read as a child – not an idol, luckily, was  overcome by the hospitality and threw up over my shoes.

Visible or Invisible? Does it matter? Not really. Except that things are different now; we’ll never go back to the old ways, and really, remembering those scary formalities, those inexplicable social rules, it’s probably a good thing.   Though being sick on someone’s shoes is probably taking informality a bit too far.