Saturday 9 January 2016

The Mystery of Virgil's Camilla by Caroline Lawrence

A few years ago I took a City Lit class to revive my Latin and we read Virgil’s Aeneid book 9, which includes the story of the so-called Night Raid by two young Trojan warriors, Nisus and Euryalus. About the same time, Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers, asked me if I would like to write a classical-themed book for them. I immediately thought that a re-telling of the Night Raid would be perfect, because it is a one-off story. Spoiler alert! Nisus and Euryalus both die at the end. It is to them that Virgil addresses his famous No day shall erase you from the memory of time, (quoted in the museum at the 9/11 memorial in New York) In the original Latin it is Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo.

Barrington Stoke produced a beautifully illustrated version of The Night Raid and asked if I’d like to do another. I thought Camilla, another character from Virgil's Aeneid, would be the perfect complement to the story of Nisus and Euryalus. Like them she is a warrior whose downfall* is caused by her lust for booty. But unlike Nisus and Euryalus, who are both mentioned in other sources, Camilla is Virgil's creation and her first appearance is in his Aeneid, books 7 and 11. As Trudy Harrington Becker says, 'Camilla herself is extraordinary in that she is a creation of Vergil, unknown before him and unattested after.'

Of course Virgil was inspired by Amazons like Penthesilea and girls consecrated to Diana like Thracian Harpalyce, but like Dido, Camilla is a unique and complex character.

Her back story is extraordinary, too. She is the baby tied to a spear and lobbed by her father across a raging torrent. 

What is frustrating about Virgil’s account is that the events of Camilla's life come out of order and there are tantalising gaps. The Aeneid is famously 'unfinished'. Would her creator have fleshed out Camilla's story? Maybe. Maybe not. But I thought it would be fun to tell the story of this bellatrix (female warrior) in a linear fashion, using my imagination in conjunction with the 'facts' that Virgil mentions. 

It was a little like solving a mystery, piecing together clues and filling in the blanks. It took several false starts and many drafts before I finally found the voice and story. 

Here is a film clip I put together – my very first effort! – to explain why I found her story so compelling. 

As always, one of my motivations in writing fiction set in the Classical world is to whet kids’ appetites for more. But I mainly wrote this for myself, to flesh out the story of this fierce young warrioress, one of Virgil's most complex and fascinating female characters. 

Queen of the Silver Arrow is out on 15 January 2016. You can order it here or from any good bookshop. 

*NB parents! I try to deal with it sensitively, but Camilla dies in a fairly horrific way, so although the reading age is only 8+, the content is PG12. 


Dennis Baugh said...

Read your post and watched the video. Got any idea when it will be available on Amazon (US)? Just want to be clear. This is an adult level read rather than a children's book? My grandson is fifth grade here in Denver. Thanks.

Caroline Lawrence said...

It's aimed at children 12+ For content more than reading level. Camilla, saved by a spear as a baby, is killed by a spear in her bare breast. I try to tell this bit without any erotic overtones but it is strong imagery. He'd be better off with one of my Roman Mysteries, aimed at exactly his age group! :-)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Christmas Press, an Australian small press aimed at publishing children's picture storybooks with folktale themes, did one about twins. The twins whose stories were told were Artemis and Apollo and Romulus and Remus. The author, Ursula Dubosarsky, managed somehow to tell a good children's version of the story of Romulus and Remus without going into the murder of Remus, yet not leaving the young readers unsatisfied with the ending. It can be done.

By the way, another of the Christmas après books was by Adele Geras!:-)

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Sue! It's always a challenge for a kidslit writer to find the right balance. I often remind myself how gruesome some of Grimm's fairy tales are!