Richard Purtill, The Golden Gryphon Feather (DAW, 1979; reprint Author House, 2004)
Richard Purtill, The Stolen Goddess (DAW, 1980; reprint Author House, 2004)
Richard Purtill, The Mirror of Helen (DAW, 1983; reprint Author House, 2004)

The Golden Gryphon Feather

Young Chryseis is taken from her Athenian home and placed on a ship with thirteen other maidens and youths bound for Crete, which the natives call Kaphtu. She is shunned by her compatriots because she becomes friendly with their captors and begins to learn their language, but Chryseis' cleverness in doing so may be all that can protect them in their coming trials. The fourteen of them have been sent as tribute to M'nos of Kaphtu, the King of the Sea People. He has given orders that they are to replace his own children in the Dance of the Bull, a ceremony sacred to Poseidon, which is as dangerous as it is beautiful. With the help of Ariadne, the princess of Kaphtu, and with the talents of Chryseis, it is just possible that they will survive the Dance.

I stayed up until nearly dawn reading this book, and then picked up the second volume and read a chapter and a half before giving up and going to sleep. I was simply delighted. Why?

Well, first there's his writing style. It's simple, uncomplicated. It describes just enough to give a glowing mental picture without ever slowing down the flow of the story. Since it's written for children or teenagers (the characters are all in their teens, but I would have loved these at, say, age eight), and the subject material is pretty far removed from what most of them know, there's a lot of things that have to be explained, but it's never done patronizingly, and it's generally done in such a way as to actually further the plot.

Then there's the plot itself. He borrows smoothly from mythology, history, and archaeology to create a living setting for mythological events. Interestingly, in all three of these books, he avoids directly depicting the most famous events of the myths concerned. He comes closest in the third book, where he does show some of the major events of the life of Helen of Troy and Sparta, but he skips over the period of the Illiad itself. His plots are, instead, built around the myths, concentrating on what made it possible for the myths to happen or to be resolved.

There's also the mythology itself, my own first love. He knows it inside and out, better than I do, and is very faithful to the stories. Every time I thought I'd caught him out and sat down to do the research to prove it, I proved myself wrong instead. I had never even heard the version of Ariadne's fate that he gives, but I like it much better than the one I did know, and sure enough, it's listed in the invaluable Greek Mythology Link. He even gives plausible explanations for some of the contradictions between versions.

Good writing, good story, good mythology. And there are three volumes of it!

The Stolen Goddess

After the death of his father, Akademus and his mother Alceme the Dancer, once a companion of Chryseis, set out from Karia. Akademus, or Ducalion to his friends, goes for adventure, while Alceme seeks her old friends for comfort in her mourning. Ducalion, eager to see the place of which he's heard so many stories, heads for Kaphtu. There he finds that Akama, the daughter of Ph'dare and Theseus, and who is now princess of Kaphtu, is in danger. Her parents are far away in Athens, and she must choose a husband to rule her lands while trying to learn the Dance of the Bull and master the powers that are her birthright as a descendant of Olympians. Her father has forbidden her to take the steps that would strengthen her abilities, leaving her terribly vulnerable during the Dance of the Bull. Politically, she faces hindrance, opposition, and even rebellion. Could Ducalion, himself of royal blood, be not only the husband she wants for herself, but the one she needs for her lands?

Of the three books, this is the least connected to the major myths, but the story to which it is connected is one of the most significant. Ducalion will see the blight brought about by the anger of Demeter when her daughter Persephone is stolen from her. In this sort of argument between gods, there is little that any mortal can do except to pray, unless some divinity happens to want one mortal's help.

Akama's name is very sensibly derived from Acamas, a son of Theseus and Phaedra who can be found listed in standard mythological sources, but who does not appear in this book. The character of Akama is an addition to the family tree of Theseus made by Purtill, but not an unreasonable one. Daughters are easily lost off the roles of history and mythology, and this one is necessary given the political structure Purtill has set up.

Kaphtu, here, is shown as patriarchal, but with the rule passing matrilineally: the husband of the Queen's eldest daughter will be King. The case for the historical accuracy of this theory has its adherents and detractors, but as far as I know there's no solid proof either way, and it works very well indeed in this story.

Indeed, these books have more believable systems of matrilineal power, and more genuinely strong women, than some supposedly feminist writers that I've seen cover similar territory. Chryseis, Ariadne, and even Alceme in the first book; Akama in this one; and a whole list of them in the third book are all brilliant examples of what womanhood can be, each one unique and strong in her own way.

The Mirror of Helen

Everyone has heard of the beauty of Helen, who was Queen of Sparta and Princess of Troy, and was famously kidnapped from her husband by Paris of Troy. Fewer people, however, know that she was also abducted by Theseus in her youth, and won back by her brothers Castor and Pollux. Nor do most know that she may not have been entirely passive during the Sack of Troy. The Mirror of Helen shows us these lesser-known stories.

This is the first book that has ever made me like Helen of Troy. I have always viewed her as the Guinevere of Greek mythology, a weak woman who was used as a pawn and who was the cause of or excuse for a great deal of trouble. Purtill gives us a Helen who is the pawn of no mortal, and can even, at length, stand up to Aphrodite herself. She uses her beauty, of course, but it is not the only tool in her kit. She's intelligent, even wise, and she surrounds herself with those who are even wiser: Aethra, mother of her first captor; Alceme, friend to Olympians; M'pha, Alceme's cunning daughter; even, for a brief while, the Amazon princess Penthesileia. She alone listens to the words of mad Cassandra, cursed by Apollo to have her prophecies go unregarded.

This is the book most involved with major events of mythology, but, as I've said, it keeps to lesser-known episodes, even including the journey of Menelaus to Egypt. While it's not my favorite volume of the trilogy, it went far to salve the wounds left by Troy with its beautiful and accurate version of events mangled by that movie.

The Kaphtu Trilogy

The new editions of these books are self-published, lovely 5-by-8 softcovers printed on acid free paper, with beautiful cover art and wonderful classical frontispieces. Lovely volumes, and I'm very glad that Mr. Purtill decided to take the risk of putting them back out himself. Unfortunately, they contain many typographical errors. The downside of self publishing is having to do everything oneself. For books this good, though, I'll overlook it.

These are wonderful books, volumes which will be given to my children someday, but not before I've reread them many times myself.

[Rebecca Scott]

More information on Richard Purtill and his books can be found here