Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean
Geraldine McCaughrean has written four retellings of Greek myths, fleshing out the personalities of various heroes and the circumstances that made them legendary. In her beautiful, fluid prose, McCaughrean hits the perfect balance in presenting the darker aspects of the myths without being either too gratuitous or too prissy. In this case, McCaughrean takes the figure of Hercules (who in a Greek setting, should technically be called “Heracles”). In his youth Hercules meets the personifications of Virtue and Vice, who offer him the choice of his destiny. Hercules chooses hardship and suffering over happiness — albeit somewhat accidentally — and so his fate is sealed.
The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Hercules is imbued with supernatural strength even in his infancy. Saddled with the burden of his phenomenal physical strength and his inability to control it, his early life is marked by his jealous stepmother’s vendetta against him. After the combined efforts of Hera’s vindictiveness and his own drunken rampage result in the deaths of his wife and children, Hercules willingly makes himself a slave to King Eurystheus of Argos in penance.
King Eurystheus orders him on one dangerous mission after another, in what makes up the bulk of the book and later becomes known as the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Most casual readers of Greek mythology will recognizes some of the trials that Hercules goes through: the Nemean Lion, the Erymanthean Boar, the Stymphalian Birds, and of course the many-headed Hydra and the filthy Augean stables, but McCaughrean explores these feats in more detail and explains just how Hercules managed to overpower so many monstrous creatures.
McCaughrean also finds room to include side-stories such as Hercules’s relationships with his second wife Deianeira, his mentor Chiron the centaur, and his famous meeting with the titan Atlas, who holds the sky up over the earth. Although the story ends with Hercules’s long-awaited ascension into the heavens, it concludes on a bittersweet tone in which McCaughrean describes the constellation of Hercules and its placement in the sky:
One day, a million years from now, the Sun’s small family of planets will loose itself among the seven stars, and we shall be cradled in Hercules’s arms. All of Earth’s little gods, people, beasts and children will fill that icy emptiness that presently lingers over his heart.
Most young people are familiar with Hercules through either the Kevin Sorbo series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, or Disney’s animated film, in which the famous hero appears as a good-hearted, sensitive man who devotes his life to good deeds simply for the sake of it. The reality (or rather, the original versions) portrayed him quite differently. The legendary Hercules was loud, boorish, brutish and rather dense; all the clever ideas that helped him defeat his foes were invariably whispered in Hercules’ ears by helpful gods. McCaughrean walks the line between these two extremes. Although this Hercules is certainly not as saintly as his television/movie counterparts, he is still a relatively gentle and simple soul who captures the reader’s sympathy.
Although McCaughrean doesn’t shy away from his weakness for wine and women and the devastating consequences that follow, Hercules’ grief and confusion over his destiny is vividly captured and surprisingly easy to relate to. (Though I suppose that’s the whole point of archetypal heroes: to capture the profound dilemmas of human existence in larger-than-life terms). Although Hercules is often helped by the younger gods, in McCaughrean’s retelling he just as often comes up with his own ideas on how to defeat his foes, either through cunning or the appropriate handling of his strength. Ultimately there is a sense of tragedy about him, particularly considering the lost love that he finally finds at the conclusion of the novel.
McCaughrean also creates a wonderful character in the sniveling, cowardly, pathetic King Eurystheus. Comically terrified of Hercules, the king is convinced that his bond-slave is out to get him, leading Hercules to wonder why his temporary master has taken to hiding in a box and directing his orders from there.
Out of McCaughrean’s four retellings of Greek myths, Hercules is probably the best. Remaining faithful to the myth, whilst writing with her own distinctive voice, softening some of the harsher aspects whilst never pandering to the lowest common denominator, McCaughrean presents a thoughtful, well-told, bittersweet look at one of the world’s most famous heroes.
Greek Heroes — (2003) Ages 9-12. Publisher: What makes a hero different from ordinary men? Are courage and strength enough, or is there something more that’s needed for battle, whether against a fearful monster or the wrath of the gods themselves? Here are the stories of four heroes, Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, and Odysseus, who follow the path of glory in their many unforgettable adventures. Geraldine McCaughrean is a master storyteller and she excels in combining nail-biting plots with a powerful portrayal of the main characters in all their complexity, their matchless strength and wit tempered by human weakness. The result is a collection of deeply satisfying and mesmerizing stories that will be an excellent addition to any bookshelf.
Hercules is one of the epic heroes that I held a special place when I was a boy. But instead of Kevin Sorbo or the Disney animated movie, what comes to my mind were the Italian produced, English dubbed movies. And the comic books. Marvel comics, had brought him back to our modern world, like the Avengers or Spiderman, and DC had a unique twist, Hercules Unbound, placed the half-god hero, in Earth’s post-apocalyptic future.