Tuesday 6 September 2011

Statues of Liberty – Katherine Roberts

Watercolour by M Kupka from a set of pictures of the Seven Wonders commissioned in 1922
The story of the Colossus of Rhodes is close to my heart at the moment. I have just republished my historical fantasy “The Colossus Crisis” independently as an e-book, and in so doing realised that this ancient statue stood for the very same choices authors are having to make in today’s brave new publishing world - the struggle for autonomy in uncertain times.

Erected on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in around 282BC, this gleaming bronze statue of the sun god Helios quickly became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a popular tourist attraction for travellers of the time. When I show the above picture in schools, children always think it is the Statue of Liberty in New York, and that’s no accident. Both statues were erected over harbours, and both stand for the same thing: independence and freedom from oppression. In fact the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886 to commemorate the French and American revolutions, was fashioned with the Colossus of Rhodes very much in mind… a perfect example of history reflecting through time.

Statue of Liberty, New York
The story of the ancient statue goes like this:

After Alexander the Great’s death (which is where we left my last post), nobody was strong enough to hold his vast empire together. He died without leaving an heir, so his generals fought over his empire and divided it up between them. Antigonus One-Eye seized power in Asia, Ptolemy took over Egypt, and the little island of Rhodes was caught between the two.

Antigonus wanted the Rhodians to join him in his war against Ptolemy I of Egypt, but since Rhodes enjoyed a prosperous trading relationship with nearby Egypt, they refused. So Antigonus sent in his son Demetrius with his siege engines, including a fearsome armoured tower called “Taker of Cities”, backed up by an army of 40,000 soldiers, 200 warships, 30,000 engineers and 170 transport ships... "Shock and Awe" tactics, ancient world style! He expected to crush Rhodes within the week.

The siege lasted a year, with even the Rhodian slaves fighting to the death on the walls beside their masters, after which Antigonus was forced to lift the siege and agree to the islanders' terms, which were to be an independent people free to trade with whoever they wanted. Impressed by their bravery, Demetrius left behind all his siege engines, which the Rhodians dismantled and sold, using the profits to erect an enormous bronze statue to their sun god Helios in thanks for their victory. Designed by Chares of Lindos, this famous Colossus stood around 110 feet tall (by comparison the Statue of Liberty is almost 152 feet tall), and was by far the tallest statue on Rhodes, which already had about 100 smaller colossi dotted about the island.

Inscribed on its base were the words:
To you, O Helios, the people of Rhodes raised this bronze colossus high up to heaven after they had calmed the waves of war and crowned their city with spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of independence, for to the descendents of Hercules belongs dominion over sea and land.”

Imagine that great statue, standing so tall and proud above Rhodes city with its spiked crown sparkling in the Mediterranean sun and its bronze limbs gleaming! A true wonder indeed to travellers arriving by ship and seeing it for the first time. To the people of Rhodes, their Colossus stood for much more than withstanding a siege. It represented independence in all its glory – a small island standing, brave and free, between two superpowers intent on destroying each other.

Colossus of Rhodes, imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck
Sadly the Colossus of Rhodes stood for only 56 years. A massive earthquake struck the island in 227BC, bringing the great statue crashing to earth. The islanders must have been devastated, but unlike the siege that had battered their city nobody could be blamed. It was an act of god, since the Rhodians believed the sea god Poseidon sent earthquakes. An oracle warned the people of Rhodes not to rebuild the Colossus, and these words turned out to be wise ones, since another large earthquake struck the island just three years later. The great statue lay in pieces on Rhodes for years – no doubt almost as much of a tourist attraction as it had been standing – before being sold to a rich Arab, who transported it off the island and carried it away on the backs of many camels into Asia, where it vanished from history.

This, to an author, is powerful stuff. A fabulous statue representing freedom is built by man and then destroyed by a god. It has some mystery about it – its pose is unknown – so I could make things up, which is always fun. And it links with the myths of Rhodes, reaching back to the ancient enmity between the sun god Helios and the sea god Poseidon. If I’d been writing an adult book about the Colossus of Rhodes, I’d probably have picked up on those themes of independence and freedom. But as a children’s writer, I had the challenge of making a rather boring statue (OK, so it was big and shiny, but it didn’t suck blood, did it?) into an interesting story for my Seven Fabulous Wonders series.

My fellow History Girl Caroline Lawrence did this successfully in her book The Colossus of Rhodes, part of her Roman Mysteries series featuring four young friends living in the ancient world. I remember my original publishers being quite anxious about that title, because the two books were published in the same year (2005) and they thought readers might get confused. They needn’t have worried. As a fantasy author, I was quite happy to leave the mysteries and the Romans up to Caroline, who has also blogged about the colossus where you'll find some more fascinating myths and truths about the famous statue. My book was set earlier, at the time of the earthquake, and I went looking for the magic.

Digging through the Greek myths, I discovered that when Rhodes first rose from the waves, Zeus gave it to the sun god Helios because he’d forgotten to include the sun god in a recent share-out of cities and islands. Helios accepted the gift gracefully because he’d spotted a beautiful nymph on the beach. He lost no time wooing the lovely Rhode, and their seven sons grew up to rule Rhodes between them. Interesting. But some of my readers for this series were only 10, so steamy god-nymph sex between Helios and Rhode was out. Then I discovered that long before Rhodes sank beneath the waves, it was inhabited by a race of sea-creatures called “telchines”, who worshipped Poseidon and had fled when the floods swallowed their home.

This was a bit more promising. As mythical creatures, the telchines fascinated me. Were they mermaids with glittering tails? Did they live in the sea or on land? What made them different from humans? Did they have any magical powers? What did they think of the humans who invaded their home? Was it even possible some telchines remained on the island when the others fled, perhaps keeping out of sight so they would not be persecuted by the incomers? On an old map I discovered a village on the coast of Rhodes called the Invisible Village, and at that point my imagination took over.

I decided my heroine Aura would be half telchine and half human. She spends her time sponge-diving in the warm seas around Rhodes, something she is good at since she has webbed feet and hands and can “water-breathe” like a fish. On land, though, she is clumsy and teased by the other children, so for most of her life she has kept out of everyone’s way on the tiny island of Alimia, where she cares for her mother, a full-blooded telchine who has gone blind. When the earthquake topples the Colossus of Rhodes, Aura is the only one who can stop a war between the telchines and the humans, a war that will tear Rhodes apart once the gods get involved...

The day the earthquake turned Aura’s world upside-down began like any other.

Before breakfast, she took her sponge sack and her knife, left her mother sleeping in the hut, and went diving. She worked alone. Occasionally, she would glimpse other divers from the neighbouring islands through the clear turquoise water, but she never spoke to them and they kept well away from her. This suited Aura just fine. She loved swimming through the colourful sponge beds with shoals of fish tickling her bare legs and the water whispering in her ears. Down here, deep beneath the human world, she could forget she was a half-breed and an outcast – at least until her breath ran out and she had to surface again.

She ignored the first warning tremors that stirred sand from the bottom. Small quakes were not uncommon around the islands, and underwater was the safest place to be when Poseidon shook the earth. Also, she had just spotted an unusual blue sponge tantalizingly out of reach in a crevice.

Aura smiled, thinking of her mother’s delight when she brought it back. Then the worst happened. As she worked her knife under her prize, the seabed cracked open like a giant clam, sucked her upside-down in a powerful rush of bubbles, and bit closed on her ankle.

The pain was so sharp and unexpected she swallowed water. That had been a big one! Panicking, she twisted her foot until blood swirled, but it was held fast. The sea, that had been calm when she’d dived, was already cloudy with falling debris. Boulders covered in feathery anemones bounced down the underwater cliff around her.

She forced her knife into the crevice and levered with all her strength, trying to free her foot. More blood darkened the water as the rock scraped her ankle raw, but she remained trapped. She gripped the ledge above her head and pulled. Nothing worked. Her lungs were bursting. Being half telchine, the old race from the sea, Aura could hold her breath longer than a human diver. Even so, if she didn’t get out of this crevice, she was going to die…

If you want to know what happens next, "The Colossus Crisis" is now available as an e-book for Kindle on special offer until September 30th:
only 86p from amazon.co.uk
only 99c from amazon.com

If you would like to collect the whole series, the Seven Fabulous Wonders are being re-launched as e-books between now and February 2012. More details HERE

And if you enjoy telling other people what you think of the books you've read, the Fabulous Wonders reviewing competition has been extended so you can now post a review of either "The Cleopatra Curse" or "The Colossus Crisis" and win a signed paperback of your choice (including one of the final paper copies of my second novel "Spellfall"!) See my website for full details.


Caroline Lawrence said...

What a great piece, Katherine! I loved it. And thanks so much for the gracious mention and links! :-)

adele said...

Lovely post, Kath!

Susan Price said...

Fascinating post, Kath! Can The Statue of Liberty still be said to stand for liberty?

Katherine Roberts said...

Can the Statue of Liberty still be said to stand for liberty? Well, it's still standing... unlike the Colossus of Rhodes!

Katherine Langrish said...

Fabulous - I'd love to know more about the 'telchines'!

Katherine Roberts said...

Telchines are vaguely human but with webbed feet and toes. They are heavy and clumsy on land (think seals), yet graceful and quick in the water. They can dive to great depths and breathe underwater like fish. They eat sponges and worship Poseidon. They are shy creatures and live behind the Barrier created by Poseidon to protect them from humans, so you're unlikely to have met one, but our legends of mermaids are based upon them...

My heroine Aura is a bit confused because she is half telchine and lives in the human world. When she was younger, she cut off her own finger webs because she wanted her hands to look "normal".

I feel a bit like Aura, with one foot in fantasy and one foot in history - or should that be fingers?

I realise dedicated historians can get rather annoyed when fantasy authors play around with their subject - so thank you, everyone, for the kind comments!

Mary Hoffman said...

I remember reading this as a "dead tree" book while holidaying on Rhodes in 2005!

And we took a trip to Symi (?sp) whose wealth had been based on sponge-diving - which all disappeared when artificial sponges were invented.

Couldn't have had a better environment for reading your exciting book!

Katherine Roberts said...

Oh, Mary! What a perfect setting for it! I've never been to any of the places where my books are set, but have promised myself to take the full tour one day.

"Dead tree" books, hmmm... are e-books already pushing real books into history? Though I'm not sure I'd trust my Kindle on a boat, with all that water around.