‘I died in Hell (They called it Passchendaele)’

hellfireWhat’s it like to be at the heart of Hell?  Very hot, in most people’s minds. Unbearably hot. The hottest and fieriest part of a mythical world in which the wicked are burnt forever in punishment for their misdeeds.

PIC 2 Dante portrait

Dante Alighieri

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong, according to Dante Alighieri, whose first part of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno, is an imaginary descent through all the nine circles of Hell. Not about the wicked being punished – that’s non-negotiable – nor about the parts of Hell that do rage with fire (hence the modern use of Inferno to describe such terrible disasters as Grenfell Tower); but about the centre of Hell itself, the lowest circle in which the wickedest souls of all are punished. They are the traitors, betrayers of family, country, guests, benefactors and finally, God himself. There is no heat of passion in their crimes, only cold, ruthless calculation; their punishment is to be frozen forever in a vast, desolate, treeless plain, an outside manifestation of the ice in their own hearts.

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Hell freezing over for Dante and Virgil (Gustav Dore)

The depiction of Dante and Virgil stumbling among these immobile figures, trying not to kick at the heads just poking above ground, in the teeth of a bitter wind, is one of the most chilling episodes of the whole Inferno. Not only that: the Hell created here has an immediacy of detail that brings it horribly close to human experience. Take away the moral judgement aspect, pockmark the plain with craters and jab it with barbed wire fences, scatter millions of cartridge cases and pieces of shrapnel, add bursts of machine gun and shellfire, relieve the darkness sporadically with flares and waterlog the ground with steady, unceasing rain – and you have Siegfried Sassoon’s famous line: I died in Hell – (They called it Passchendaele).

Passchendaele Canadian War Museum

Passchendaele – Hell on earth. (Photo courtesy of IWM)

This is why, when updating Dante’s Hell for my children’s version of his story, Ante’s Inferno, I could think of no better way to try to match the horror of his ninth circle than to follow Sassoon’s lead. An accident at school sends 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) on a journey through the Underworld, accompanied by her worst enemy, Florence, and Gil, a boy who died 100 years before the story begins, on the eve of the First World War. At first, the three of them have to deal merely (!) with creatures and monsters from classical legend – Cerberus, Charon, harpies, the minotaur.

Dante & Vergil on Styx copy

Charon ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx. (Gustav Dore)

It’s lower down that man-made instruments of destruction come into their own, culminating in the bottom of Hell consisting of a recreation of the battle of Passchendaele, arguably the most terrible of the whole war. From its beginning on 31 July until the capture of Passchendaele ridge by the Canadian Corps on 10 November, 1917, the casualties on both sides came to well over half a million: shot, blown up, gassed and even drowned, as vast areas of the ground had been churned into liquid mud many feet deep. Siegfried Sassoon wasn’t wrong. Even in light of so many other appalling WW1 battles, Passchendaele stands out.

IWM pic of Passchendaele E_AUS_001220 copy

Australian troops at Passchendaele. (photo courtesy of IWM)

This year marks 100 years since the battle took place, an anniversary I’ll be bringing out on a number of school visits I have booked around Remembrance Day in November (I have room for more, any Year 5 – 8 teachers out there!). In honour of the Centenary, Ante’s Inferno has undergone a special reprint, the jacket updated by the addition of a haunting photograph from the Imperial War Museum.

Looking at that flat, grey, desolate wasteland of mud and stagnant water, its only features the shorn trunks of trees where once a forest had been, I think Dante would have understood.

Ante Inferno Passchendaele copy

Always assuming he’d forgive my cheek in reimagining his masterpiece in the first place…

(From a blogpost on Authors Electric  )

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Do children still read Historical Fiction?

A deliberately loaded question, I know. Implying that a Golden Age existed once in which children devoured stories set in another period…. and now maybe not so much. If there’s a grain of truth in this assumption, guess what: it’s not the children’s fault.

The King must dieGrowing up, I remember historical fiction in children’s books was huge. Giants like Mary Renault, Geoffrey Trease, Roger Lancelyn Green and Leon Garfield dominated the bookshelves. They had the knack of creating exciting, moving, well-written stories that plunged their readers into a different world where we absorbed details of language, customs, real people, events and battles without even realising it. Because what mattered above all was the story, powered by strong, finely-drawn, sympathetic characters.

Sounds familiar? That’s because this is how all good fiction works, whether it’s for children or adults; historical, romantic, thriller, fantasy. Children will go for a good story, no matter when or where it’s set. While they don’t need to know anything about the period beforehand, by the time they’ve turned the last page they’ll know a great deal, and this gives them a sense of empowerment included in the sheer enjoyment of the story. Contrary to what many adults think, children can fall Ante thumbnaileasily into the rhythm of language spoken in a different period, with unfamiliar words. As long as the context explains the meaning, it’s fine. Writing the historical parts of my books, Ante’s Inferno (World War 1) and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (Elizabethan England), I was determined not to dumb down the complexities of the period or the language for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERmy readers. Young people’s response to my books has been not just enthusiasm for the stories, but also delight at being given something to get their teeth into. They know when they’re being taken seriously and when they’re being patronised.

No, the problem isn’t with the children. It’s with what they’re offered. And my impression is that the portion of the market historical fiction used to enjoy is now occupied by fantasy. This is also a wonderful genre, boasting books by some of the best writers around today, but in creating purely fantasy worlds it can’t do what historical fiction does. There are signs that the pendulum is swinging the other way, in Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series, for instance, and Lucy Worsley’s recently published Eliza Rose. The success of these and other titles show that children will seize on stories set in different time periods just as much as in parallel worlds.

Come on, fellow historical fiction writers, your market is out there!

I’ll be discussing writing historical fiction for children with Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on the Historical Fiction panel at the Self Publishing Conference  in Leicester on Saturday, 7th May.

Happy 750th Birthday!

PIC 2 Dante portraitWhen a year forms not only the centenary of First World War campaigns, but also commemorates at least two other famously bloody battles (Agincourt, Waterloo), it is cheering to discover that 2015 also marks the 750th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest poets the world has ever produced.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265. We don’t know the exact date, but from hints dropped in the Paradiso it was when the sun was in Gemini, that is, between 11 May and 11 June. The Paradiso is the third part of Dante’s most famous work, the Divine Comedy, in which he imagines himself being guided through all three areas of the afterlife (Inferno, or Hell, and Purgatory being Parts One and Two).  The Devil, as we know, has all the best tunes, meaning that while the Divine Comedy as a whole is among the most sublime poetry ever written, it is the poet’s descent into the dark circles of Hell that makes the most exciting story. Which for me, as Dante enthusiast and children’s writer, begs the question – why has noone ever created a children’s version of this wonderful, scary, gruesome journey, full of mythical monsters and rivers of blood and fire?  Is Dante just thought too difficult for a child to understand?

Well, if that used to be the case, the good news is that it isn’t anymore. In the UK in recent years, writers have taken up the challenge: John Agard with his sharply amusing updated  Young Inferno, Young InfernoHunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson with their deliciously irreverent Dante’s InfernoEmerson and Jackson Dante's Inferno    and, ahem, me with Ante’s Inferno, an adventure story in which 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) finds herself descending through the classical Underworld on a quest to solve a 100 year-old murder mystery.Ante thumbnail

While all publishing is something of a gamble, adapting for children a work more commonly the subject of deep academic study will be thought by some adults to be brave, not to say niche. Luckily children think otherwise. On BBC Radio 3 recently, Kevin Jackson described how an 8 year-old boy enjoyed his Dante’s Inferno so much he now wanted to read the original (hurrah!).  My book Ante’s Inferno won the 2013 People’s Book Prize, judged entirely by readers who vote for the books nominated.

That Dante, given a chance, can appeal to young people is something I know well from reactions of the 9 – 13 year-olds I talk to on my school visits. None of them has heard of Dante before. All are fascinated by the idea of someone dreaming up a carefully ordered Hell structured on a place many of them recognise – the Hades of Greek myth – and eager to read an adventure story set there.

So I am delighted when children – and adults – tell me they’ve loved Ante’s Inferno.  If my book – like Emerson’s and Jackson’s – inspires them one day to tackle the masterpiece it’s based on, so much the better.