mark monday's Reviews > The Golden Shadow

The Golden Shadow by Leon Garfield
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's review
Oct 29, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: mythopoeikon, alpha-team, buried-treasure, first-loves

gods and monsters, monsters and men, gods and men and monsters all together, sometimes all in one.
Little by little he became absorbed in a small patch of ground where a nation of insects were toppling hither and thither, bearing tiny boulders of dust to raise walls, palaces and temples in a country an arm's length off. He fell to wondering if they could see his huge face, and if his eyes were their grey skies with two black suns glaring down? Was this a great occasion for them, to be remembered for generations? Perhaps even now they were praying to him to be forgiven for their insect sins. Great Face, what must we do to atone? Shall we catch a huge fierce bee and offer it up to you? Shall we build you a temple as high as the tallest blade of grass?
it's awesome to re-experience something and find it to be as compelling and satisfying an experience as it was the first time. I loved this book as a kid; 30 years later, it is just as good. actually it's even better, now that I care about things like prose, now that I love things filled with melancholy and ambiguity and dreams.

The Golden Shadow is a re-telling of selected Greek myths. it has a loose narrative: a nameless storyteller and Heracles live their lives. their paths cross once, but to no consequence. the sad storyteller has cursed himself... he wants to believe in the myths and legends he tells but something in his nature causes him to constantly sabotage himself and his ability to see the greater world above and beyond and even around him. Heracles too has been cursed... snakes sent to slay him as a child, snakes of the mind sent later, causing him to slay those around him. both are beautifully tragic figures. surprisingly, despite his uber-heroic and godlike stature, Heracles turns out to be the more sympathetic and understandable. he's an endearing creation, which makes his central tragedy all the more terrible and even rather hard to read. the storyteller is more frustrating in his disbelief, in his stubborn, complacent blindness. their stories are framed by the stories of the sea goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles, told by fate that she would bear a child greater than his father, and Peleus, brother-slayer, a great man weakened by his hatred of being surpassed. also told are a handful of other myths. invulnerable Meleager's tragic boar hunt; dispassionate Atalanta's cruel race; naïve Admetus' search for a person to take his place in death. these stories come and go and flow in and out of each other. an ouroboros of a story, or perhaps a helix; circles within circles, most closed, others widening and opening as they appear to end; stories curving and spiraling into each other, Heracles and the storyteller, Thetis and Peleus, two pairs of intertwining helices making a singular, multi-faceted tale.

I can see why I loved this so much as a child. the adventures are thrillingly told - but in a different sort of way, almost as uncertain dream adventures being retold the morning after. haunting, filled with menace and dread, moving from hyperreal clarity to murky obliquity. there's a child's voice in the second half - Iolaus, companion to Heracles - with whom I may have excitedly identified. there is sexuality - certainly nothing graphic, but it is quite clearly there - that must have mystified and tantalized me. and there are the spare, spidery, sinister line drawings throughout... wonderfully eerie.

there was just as much to enjoy as an adult. all of the above paragraph, of course, and the twisting and twining of narrative strands. and then there's the prose! oh the prose. wondrously poetic prose, delicate and strange and delicious, created with an impressive economy of words. and the irony! it is suffused throughout the stories. a dark and very adult sort of irony, one that gives a sharpness and a sting to each of the tales. and the characterization! not just Heracles, who comes fully alive, or the storyteller in his smallness and greatness, or brave little Iolaus... everyone is depicted in such careful, witty, even resonant ways, from the sardonic princess Atalanta to the repuslively complacent Augeias to Molorchus, who makes his personal tragedy his lifetime work, to Heracles' creepily fastidious and small-minded cousin Eurystheus, building his sunken bronze bowl of a room to skulk in whenever his cousin appears.

best of all, the wisdom. I have no idea who Leon Garfied was, but he was clearly a man who knew his fellow men well. he has the gracious empathy of a kindly man, forgiving of faults - and yet it is also the empathetic man who knows how to give the sharpest stings. he has the imagination of a born storyteller, one who can re-tell and reinvent old, old stories and make them feel fresh and new, exciting and thoughtful, terrible and wondrous, all at once. but are these tales lies, or at best, mere mortal conceits? so thinks the sad storyteller. as the saying goes, Garfield weaves a tangled web. he is a particularly skilled weaver: he takes the familiar tales and makes them unfamiliar; he takes their timelessness and makes of them something warmer, something stranger. Garfield weaves a tapestry of mortal and immortal conceits that are dark and golden in hue, shadows and a sunset glow, an enchanting dream of a tapestry.
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Reading Progress

10/27/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Yes, I want to read this

mark monday do!

message 3: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry Wow, sounds great mark! Given my recent renewed interest in the Greek myths your review has convinced me that I'll have to check this one out.

mark monday I thought of you and your reviews while reading this!

message 5: by Terry (new) - added it

Terry mark wrote: "I thought of you and your reviews while reading this!"

Cool, thanks! Then a definite must-read.

message 6: by Manju (new)

Manju Great review Mark. added this one to my tbr. :)

mark monday thanks, I'm still fiddling with it. fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, I can't help myself.

hope you read the book! it's beautiful.

message 8: by Trudi (new)

Trudi Stop fiddling with yourself mark! Show some self control man!

(great review)

mark monday I was hoping someone would make that reference!

message 10: by Jean (new) - added it

Jean Sounds amazing!

message 11: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday I think you would like this one Jean.

message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Gosh, Garfield seems to have produced quite a variety of things. I also loved the one book of his I encountered as a child, Fair's Fair, a picture book about a Victorian urchin who meets a mysterious dog. And it looks like he wrote adult novels as well.

message 13: by mark (new) - rated it 5 stars

mark monday he does have a lot under his belt. I added Black Jack

message 14: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Looks fun! And after you can watch the movie.

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