I vaguely remember reading this book when I was young. It had infiltrated my dad’s stash of 1970s sci-fi in the attic, sitting ill-at-ease beside Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Silverberg. When I stumbled over a copy some twenty years later in Hay-on-Wye, I decided to read it again. And was it worth it? Hmm. It was written in 1966 and hasn’t dated well, in ways that would have gone over my head as a young teen. More on that in a moment. The story itself means well, though. Stuffed full of Greek mythology, it seems to have been written under the influence of Mary Renault. It’s the tale of Thea and Icarus, two half-Cretan children who escape the destruction of the city of Knossos – in a glider, naturally. They hope to reach the Country of the Beasts, the region into which Greece’s mythological creatures have withdrawn to escape the advance of men. But their headlong flight leads instead to further danger, leaving them stranded in the cave of the Minotaur himself.
Thea and Icarus are not, strictly speaking, Cretans. They are the children of King Minos’s brother Aeacus, but their mysterious dryad mother, whom he met during his wanderings, has bequeathed them pointed ears and hair shaded with green. They do not belong fully in the world of men and, although the Cretans have accepted them, they will face less tolerance among the invading forces of the Achaeans. The Achaeans are towering, cruel men from the north: they have no time for the ancient creatures of the wilderness. And so the children hope to find members of their own kind in the Country of the Beasts, where they will finally belong. That – the desire to find a proper forever home – is at the heart of more fairy tales and children’s stories than you can count, but despite its naivety this is definitely a novel for grown-ups.
The Minotaur, when we meet him, is not the ravening red-eyed creature we see on the cover of the book. He’s actually quite gentle. His name is Eunostos, a Mr Tumnus type who has built a little house in the forest (the cave is just a place for him to pick up the odd lamb left for his lunch). He has a garden, a parasol, a neat little set of rooms and a home brewery. Oh, and he sets gems for a living, with his team of domesticated ants (it’s never really explained why). A more domesticated Minotaur it would be hard to imagine. And this Eunostos, for all that he’s a bachelor, takes the two children in and decides to give them a home. Part of the reason is because he’s instantly smitten by Thea. And that should have been that: a tale of domestic harmony springing up among this enforced little family, with Thea quite properly (hint: sarcasm) taking on the role of tidying the house, decorating it with flowers and making clothes for her menfolk.
But all is not well in the forest. The Achaeans are always greedy for more land, and there’s more in the Country of the Beasts than just a few mythological creatures. Eunostos, as I’ve said, cuts gems and there is a vast field that offers up agates and chalcedony as easily as pebbles. More importantly, though, they want Icarus and Thea back: spoils of war, as members of the Cretan royal family. The commander Ajax has bribed the wicked, winged, golden Thriae to betray their fellow Beasts and give up the children. But will the Country of the Beasts so easily let the two newcomers go? Or will Eunostos manage to rouse his countrymen into one final stand against the forces of chaos, who threaten to bring to an end the mythical age of Greece for ever?
Described like that, it sounds like a noble, wholesome adventure – two children stand with their new friends against the evil armies of an invader who must be stopped at all costs. However, what I’ve omitted to mention so far is that the whole book is drenched with a strangely winsome kind of sexual desire. This is often focused on Thea who, even if she is technically over the age of consent, is described in child-like language often enough for it to feel disturbing when we’re treated to descriptions of her breasts. The Country of the Beasts feels like a slightly hippyish late 60s commune, full of free love, in which the two Cretans catch plenty of eyes. Icarus (despite being underage by modern standards) is allowed to be as randy as he likes, rampaging off to bury his head in the bosoms of buxom dryads, and being lured in by beautiful but deadly Thriae women. Thea, on the other hand, is desired by everyone around her but stands firm in her resolve to be chaste – perhaps because even a free-love 1960s fantasy secretly wants a virginal heroine. But Thea has a lot of horrible attention to deal with – she’s almost raped within a couple of chapters of the story starting, and relentlessly (if naively) pursued by Eunostos after that – only for him to spit that she’s ‘a bloodless prude‘ when she turns him down. Let’s not forget that Eunostos is essentially in loco parentis. It all feels just a bit… icky.
For someone who’s a protagonist, Thea lacks any kind of character. She’s just a pretty figure for the men in the story to slaver over, and condemned by them when she won’t jump into bed with them straight away. Fortunately she’s happy to do all the cleaning, tidying and sewing so, although she won’t have sex with Eunostos at the drop of a hat, at least she’s still halfway useful to have around. (Yes, all said tongue-in-cheek and a little angrily.) The book’s whole attitude to sex and gender roles is very dated and there’s precious little to redeem it. Even among the Centaurs, the males spend their time lolling around in the baths while the females make fires, hoe the gardens and look after the family pets. Is there no rest for the women even among entirely fictional species?!
What I can’t convey here is that the book feels bitty, as though it’s part of a larger story. I don’t know if there was a previous instalment, or perhaps a sequel (Amazon lists The Forest of Forever, which must be linked), but one is left with the sense of it being unfinished. Add the slightly creepy eroticism and, despite the often lyrical prose – for Swann is a gifted writer, I won’t deny that – you have a book which feels like a period piece: the most 1960s ancient Greek fantasy you’ll ever read.