For The Double Tongue, which was published two years after his death, Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding looked almost 2,000 years into the past to tell a thoughtful story of one of the Pythias, or women responsible for relaying the answers of Apollo’s oracle at the Greek city of Delphi. William Golding’s fame rests with his haunting novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), in which a group of stranded schoolboys establishes a brutal regime on the South Sea island where they survive without any adults. In The Double Tongue, Golding creates for the first time a female central character, who is also given the role of first-person narrator. The result is a novel of exquisite insight, and the reader quickly feels that Arieka really comes to life off the pages of Golding’s well-crafted narrative.
As the novel opens, the eighty-year-old Arieka shares her very first memories as a curious baby girl who is as yet oblivious of the strict gender roles imposed by classical Greek society. Here, Golding succeeds admirably to give a clear sense of an ancient society, without falling in the trap of merely mouthing politically correct stereotypes imposed by a later age. Arieka’s discovery of the (historically accurate) limitations of her life as a girl and young woman is rendered entirely natural and believable. Arieka soon realizes what is expected of her, such as silent obedience to her father. She also learns that she cannot travel abroad on her own like her brother Demetrios, who nevertheless teaches his sister to read.
Arieka’s rebellion against her marriage to the neighborhood bully Leptides rings true as well. Her escape on the back of the family donkey does not last very long, however, since she runs straight into a hunting party and is returned home in disgrace. It is now that her fate turns from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Golding has handled well the moment of Arieka’s first deep despair: Alone in her room, she tries to communicate with her gods only to find that there is no return to her frantic questions and her overwhelming grief. The absence of the divine is central to Golding’s work, and The Double Tongue offers a further reflection on the idea that maybe there really is nothing spiritual out there among the chaos and random evil of a godless universe.
What makes Arieka so interesting as a character clearly is Golding’s mastery of her voice. Whether she argues with her house slaves, or discovers her own special abilities at Delphi, Arieka sounds both unmistakably true to her ancient Greek society, and, at the same time, responds just as any young person at any moment in history may have done if confronted by an uncaring, somewhat intimidating environment.
Arieka’s rescue from a life according to the strict norms for classical Greek women occurs in the person of Ionides Peisistratides, a friend of her father who is Apollo’s high priest at the oracle of Delphi. Adopting Arieka and taking in a handsome dowry for his college of priests, Ionides leads her to the city of Delphi. This actual town is described in rich detail and with a fine eye for its special character as one of Greece’s prime tourist attractions even 2,000 years ago.
Through Ionides, Arieka and the reader are introduced to the larger historical background of the novel’s time and visit the individual artifacts and holy houses of Delphi. The creation of Ionides is another masterstroke of William Golding, and the reader soon notices how special this cynical priest is to his author. Ionides has a certain ironic distance to his office and the whole cult of the oracle. In a sense, he represents the position of the agnostic thinker within the novel: He does not deny the existence of the gods whom it is his duty to serve, but he cannot affirm their reality, either, when prodded to do so by youthful and enthusiastic Arieka.
Ionides’ wit and cynicism introduces a certain light touch to The Double Tongue which serves its narrative quite well, for it nips in the bud the danger of approaching the historical subject matter with too much reverence, or simple-minded pomposity. Golding’s Greeks and Romans are neither abstract, toga-clad statues, nor simply contemporary English or American women and men dressed in strange garb, but otherwise indistinguishable from the reader’s time and age.
As Arieka begins to settle in at Delphi, she also makes the acquaintance of the slave Perseus, who is in charge of the oracle’s immense, well-stocked library. Arieka is further encouraged in her pursuit of classical learning by...
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