‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Three cheers for school visits!

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Demons & magic – essential for curriculum

A few weeks ago, I did one of my favourite things as a writer: visited a school. On the hottest and longest day of the year, I stood in a cool (aahhh, relief) assembly hall and spoke to two lots of 9 – 12 year-old boys, around 150 in all. Together we covered important topics that would be part of any national curriculum I had a hand in – alchemy, magical instruments, demons, Faustian pacts, corruption and abuse of power. Yup, that should equip them for dealing with whatever the world can throw at them in later life. Oh, and the crucial ingredients for what makes a good story: strong, believable characters, powerful motivation and a tight plot structure.

I involved my audience as much as possible, asking questions ranging from easy to more demanding, not because I expected them to know all the answers but because it’s extraordinary how often children can surprise themselves – and their teachers – with knowledge they didn’t know they had.

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How to draw up a Faustian pact

   

This is why I love school visits. Yes, I always hope a good number of my audience will be inspired hearing about my book (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in this case, as you probably guessed) to queue up afterwards for a signed copy. But sharing with children the things that excite me about books, how they can not only entertain but enrich your imagination and experience with themes and images that link straight to the great classics, gives me the biggest thrill of all. You can enjoy the world of Narnia, for instance, with no idea that fauns, centaurs, dryads and naiads are all rooted in Greek mythology; ditto with the fabulous creatures and themes – hippogriffs, dragons, unicorns, the basilisk and phoenix, alchemy and shape shifting, all well-known tropes of mediaeval literature – in the Harry Potter stories. But if, having read these when young, you later on pick up a copy of Ovid or Vergil or Dante or Milton, it will feel – at least in part – like coming home.

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Hippogriff

Because my books are aimed at Years 5 – 8 (straddling the primary/secondary divide) I visit all kinds of schools, alternating between speaking to the oldest and youngest Year groups. Every school has a different – but, in my experience, always positive – atmosphere, from the most comfortable private school to the most cash-strapped state primary. I am full of admiration for the teachers who organise my visits; with all the pressures they are under already, it can’t be easy to free up several classes across a school day to attend my talk. Yet I often see from their faces – as well as the pupils’ – at the end that it’s been worth while. The experience of meeting a real, live author who takes the children on a journey they wouldn’t normally go on, can be truly exhilarating, inspiring them to take their own reading and creative writing to new levels. And that can only be good.

 Why, then, do I find it so difficult to charge a visit fee?

Initially, I reasoned I was new to this game, the main thing was to spread the word about my books while enthusing my audience with the glories of reading, and with luck, to sell a good number of copies afterwards. A few visits which didn’t quite work out like that soon toughened me up. In some schools I’d sell 60 or 70 books; in others, after talking to 120 children, only a handful. I gained in confidence that what I offer is worth having, therefore charging a fee is perfectly reasonable (I know!). But what really swung it for me was an observation by a fellow author that if we, as speakers, don’t put a value on ourselves, neither will schools. My ‘generosity’ (ok, cowardice) in waiving a fee makes it much harder for another author to charge one, and time spent away from writing needs to pay its way, or how can a writer make a living?

   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADORThus chastened, I do now charge for visits, plus expenses. It’s the piece of information I dread giving, even though the modest sum named is well below the rates recommended by the Society of Authors. Thankfully, most schools are fine with it, though I still can’t get over the brazenness of one private school in the wealthiest part of London informing me that on principle, they never pay fees or expenses to outside speakers. Needless to say, plans for my visit stopped right there and I was left hoping that the same principle didn’t extend to the school’s own teachers, administrative and catering staff.

   So if you know of any school who’d like their Years 5, 6, 7, 8 inspired by an author talk ranging from Greek mythology to the First World War (Ante’s Inferno), or from alchemy to demons and Elizabethan magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), taking in the art of creating convincing characters, dialogue and story structure on the way, put them in touch with me here: 

http://www.griseldaheppel.com/contact/4587972230

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Alchemy or chemistry?

I promise their students will go away with a good working knowledge of such useful concepts as the Seven Deadly Sins and what exactly constitutes a Faustian pact.

Knowledge like that… Well, you can’t put a price on it, can you?

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric Blogspot 1.07.17)