Thersites Needs a Beating:
Incompetence and Dishonesty in the Conservative Catholic Ghetto
J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. The Eighth Arrow. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018. 347 pp.
Ignatius Press pitches The Eighth Arrow as something “…gently educational,” and adds: “…it can be read as a guide or a companion to Dantes [sic] Inferno [sic] and the works of Homer.” Can it really? Maybe not – but the publisher’s recommendation does indicate the peculiar claims implicitly made by the book. It’s not a fiction revolving around characters invented by an ingenious author. At least in part, it is a commentary on familiar characters and works central to the canon of Western literature.
Ordinary readers are onto this game. A customer review on Goodreads, posted by “Brandon” on April 4, 2019, manages to combine tremendous insight and unfathomable ignorance in a single sentiment: “One thing I can definitely say about The Eighth Arrow: there is certainly strong scholarship behind it. Fr. Wetta knows his source material well, and it shows. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that knowledge led to a particularly good novel.” Brandon correctly perceives that The Eighth Arrow is not a good novel. It’s not a novel at all, and, even if it succeeded, it would be a picaresque romance. More important, Brandon perceives that Fr. Wetta goes to incredible lengths to “show” his scholarship. Wearing one’s learning lightly is evidently something Wetta failed to study in school.
However, Brandon is wrong when he tells us that Wetta’s masterwork is rooted in “strong scholarship.” On the contrary, the erudition displayed is entirely bogus. Wetta strongly hints that he is learned in the Classical languages, but, when he tries to unload a measure of extraneous Latin into his text, he gets it wrong. Wetta presumes to address three of the seminal works of Western literature – The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Inferno. But he can’t even keep the simple facts of these narratives straight. It’s not going too far to wonder, on several occasions, if Wetta has really read either the Homeric poems or Dante all the way through in the first place.
In context, Wetta’s labored attempts at “scholarship” are insults to Homer, to Dante, and to the reader. Far worse, though, is the demeaning attitude Wetta takes toward his principal character and narrator, the hero Ulysses. (I habitually use the Roman names for all the figures of Greco-Roman mythology, as Alexander Pope did. Ulysses=Odysseus.) This offense, which coils and writhes at the very heart of The Eighth Arrow, is enough to make any sympathetic reader of Homer absolutely furious.
The Eighth Arrow indicates a disturbing trend in Catholic publishing – a zealous return to the intellectual ghetto. Are Catholic readers really so desperate for Catholic fiction that they are willing to put up with something as pretentious and embarrassing as this?
In order to impress the reader with his learning, Fr. Wetta makes numerous jokes, if jokes they can be called – jokes that are supposed to require of Wetta fans an acquaintance with ancient languages and writing systems. He then includes end notes to explain his own cleverness. The problem is that most of his exercises in linguistic ostentation only reveal that he doesn’t know what he pretends to know.
Take the following super-slick verbal trick.
The premise of Wetta’s story is that Ulysses and Diomed (Diomedes), sentenced to the Eighth Circle of Hell by Dante, break out. They are aided in this endeavor by a mysterious “goddess” whom Ulysses takes for Minerva (Athena) but who is really the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cute, huh? At the end of the heroes’ encounter with this figure, Ulysses asks which god sent her. “He of the four-letter name,” she answers (Wetta 19). In case you fail to appreciate the brilliance, Wetta uses a scholarly note on his own text to explain how much smarter he is than the wisest of the Greeks. Ulysses, says Wetta, “thinks of Zeus, but the mysterious ‘goddess’ is recalling the Tetragrammaton YHWH, the unspeakable name of the God of the Old Testament” (340).
Problem number one with Wetta’s stroke of genius: no one who fought in the Trojan War would regard Zeus as a four-letter name. The Greek alphabet, which made the stunning addition of vowels to the alphabet borrowed from Phoenicia, didn’t even begin to exist till the last half of the 8th century B.C. – two centuries after the Achaeans sailed for Ilium. The Greek writing system that was used before the Trojan War was what we now call Linear B – and, in Linear B, “Zeus” is a two-letter name.
Problem number two – a more fundamental problem – is that neither Ulysses nor Diomed are literate at all. Wetta firmly asserts that Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, “was almost certainly illiterate” (334). Why should a literary figure working after the introduction of the alphabet be illiterate if two hands-on guys whose main concern was busting heads were somehow reading Aristotle? Bernard Knox tells us that everyone in The Iliad is illiterate, and that only professional scribes could write Linear B (Fagles 8). But is expert testimony really necessary? Any reader can see that Achilles, Ulysses, Agamemnon, Diomed, Ajax, Helen, and Hector belong to the heroic age, not to the degenerate age of scribblers.
Wetta plays little games like this with great determination – and always trips over his own feet while doing so. At one point, in the Circle of the Heretics, Ulysses encounters a soul confined with a caption. “It’s some sort of writing or an alphabet. Not unlike our own, really…. And look here: a pi, an upsilon, two lambdas… Hmm. And is that a mu?” (Wetta 174). The witty Wetta is here spelling out the name of Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, in the Latin alphabet, which is not unlike the Greek. But doesn’t every schoolchild learn what the letter pi looks like while studying the circumference and area of a circle? It looks nothing like the Latin P. Indeed, our letter P looks like the Greek letter rho – and Ulysses, if he were literate, and if the Greek alphabet had existed during his lifetime, would here read Rullman, not Pullman. Duh, Father.
Whenever a Latin or Italian name springs up in his narrative, Wetta has some character mention that it sounds like a Trojan word (see for example page 117). Ha! Get it? The Trojans through Aeneas were the ancestors of the Romans, so the Roman language and its offshoots must sound like Trojan! Genius – or ignorance? The language actually spoken in Troy was probably Luwian, which was about as close to Latin as Old Church Slavonic is to English. Even in mythological terms, Wetta’s cleverness here falls on its face. If you’ve actually read The Aeneid, you will know that, when Aeneas shows up in Italy, he vies for the hand of the Latin princess amongst a bunch of crazy Latins who already speak, well, Latin. Turnus, Lavinia, and Latinus all have Latin names. Aeneas does not. The Latin language, in Vergil’s vision, is waiting for Aeneas when he arrives. He doesn’t bear it into Italy.
Speaking of Latin, Wetta introduces an extraneous line of it into his book. Ulysses is journeying through Limbo after restoration to full corporeal life – that is, he is no longer a shade. The shade of a little boy spots him and runs away, shouting: “Vivit! Vivit! Ecce, amici! Venite! Homo vivans!” (76). In his glossary (yup, there’s both a glossary and a set of notes), Wetta repeats these words and translates them: “He’s alive! He’s alive! Come here, guys! It’s a living man!” (337).
Unfortunately for Wetta, he gets his Latin wrong. Eheu, verbum latinum vivans non est! Alas, in Latin there is no word “vivans.” “Vivere,“ to live,” is a third conjugation verb and takes –ens, not –ans, as its participial ending.
Couldn’t this just have been a typo? Probably not – because Wetta makes it twice. Plus, it’s the kind of error that no one could commit after completing a full semester of elementary Latin. Once upon a time, I taught Latin to seventh-graders. None of them would have been permitted to screw up in this particular way.
More embarrassing is the reality that Wetta could have avoided his boneheaded performance here by simply not showing off. There was no reason to wedge any Latin sentences into his text. The Latin serves no narrative purpose. It’s only there to show readers like “Brandon” how smart Wetta can be. Wetta endlessly preaches humility. His earlier book – not a work of fiction – is all about this wonderful Christian virtue. If he’d exercised just a tiny bit of humility at this point, he would not have made such a fool of himself. But that’s a big if.
Just the Factoids, Ma’am
As he labors to impress us with his background knowledge, Wetta frequently presents facts that aren’t quite facts. He even makes some of these factoids – outrageous mistakes about what is to be found in the Homeric poems or in Dante – central to the development of his narrative. It almost seems as if Wetta just makes things up, then dares the reader to call him on it. Dare accepted, Father. Dare very enthusiastically accepted.
Probably the worst of these fumbles occurs when Wetta is trying to prod his parody of Ulysses into repenting for his many misdeeds. While he’s traveling through Limbo, just before meeting Wetta’s absurd version of Homer, Ulysses comes upon Amphinomus (Amphinomos), one of the suitors slaughtered in the hall at Ithaca. “He looked exactly as he had the day I murdered him,” says the king (Wetta 63). Wetta makes the effects of this encounter last – heavily emphasizing them, ham-handedly arguing that Amphinomus was one of the good suitors, and finally compelling Ulysses to apologize to Amphinomus for killing him (86). Wetta actually devotes 23 pages to this little drama within a drama.
Problem is that Wetta has botched his facts again. In The Odyssey, Ulysses isn’t the one who kills Amphinomus. That honor belongs to Telemachus. Moreover, the act of killing Amphinomus is completely justified. It is clearly the climax of character development for Ulysses’ son.
Here’s the passage that Fr. Wetta never got around to reading:
Next bold Amphinomus his arm extends
To force the pass, the godlike man defends.
Thy spear, Telemachus, prevents the attack,
The brazen weapon driving through his back.
Thence through his breast its bloody passage tore;
Flat falls he thundering on the marble floor,
And his crush’d forehead marks the stone with gore (Odyssey, Book 22).
Wetta is wrong about who kills Amphinomus and about whether that deed constitutes murder. Telemachus dispatches Amphinomus in defense of his own endangered father. You can’t claim much more justification than that.
It’s hard to see how Fr. Wetta could miss these realities. Which Odyssey does he claim to have read? The action of Telemachus in this scene is not a mere detail. Homer as literary artist takes great pains to prepare us for this feat of arms on the part of the Prince of Ithaca.
At numerous places throughout the poem, from the very first book, we are referred to the example of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who takes revenge on the murderer of his father. In one of her many guises, Minerva addresses Telemachus:
Hast thou not heard how young Orestes, fired
With great revenge, immortal praise acquired?
His virgin sword Aegysthus’ veins imbrued;
The murderer fell, and blood atoned for blood.
O greatly blessed with every blooming grace!
With equal steps the paths of glory trace;
Join to that royal youth’s your rival name,
And shine eternal in the sphere of fame (Odyssey, Book 1).
The same lesson is repeated to Telemachus by Nestor (Book 6), and Orestes’ radiant deed is later mentioned in two other contexts. That’s a whole lot of repetition. You’d think Wetta might get the message: in defending his father from one of the suitors, Telemachus imitates – and in some ways exceeds – the virtue of Orestes. So oblivious to Homer’s art, however, is our Benedictine storyteller that he misses the meaning and the act itself. Has he been consuming lotus-based products?
It’s a sad commentary on Fr. Wetta as reader that he takes one of the most luminous moments in Western literature, the death of the suitors, and turns it into an excuse for reproach. Is Ulysses really such a bad guy for slaughtering the suitors?
He is not. Wetta appears to labor under the misapprehension that all the suitors are doing as a group is courting Penelope – so that the “good” suitors (including Amphinomus) are really only poorly-informed aspiring lovers. The actual occupation of the suitors is a much darker business. Minerva condemns “the suitor train” as a body for lawlessness, rebellion, theft on a grand scale, and destruction of the kingdom (Odyssey, Book 1). Eumaeus complains of the suitors’ depredations on his herds and on the kingdom as a whole (Book 14). And numerous other common people in Ithaca echo his unhappiness. Worst of all, the suitors are involved in conspiracies to kill the rightful rulers of the realm. Wetta acknowledges the scheme to kill Telemachus, and classifies Amphinomus as a “good” suitor (and invader, and oppressor) because Amphinomus is not a party to that scheme (Wetta 65). But what about the conspiracy to assassinate Ulysses himself? Leocritus (Leokritos) is the speaker:
“Should great Ulysses stern appear in arms,
While the bowl circles and the banquet warms;
Though to his breast his spouse with transport flies,
Torn from her breast, that hour, Ulysses dies” (Odyssey, Book 2).
By the way, in case Wetta doesn’t get it, this is why Ulysses can’t simply land in Ithaca and tell the suitors: “Hey, guys, there’s been a mistake. I’m still alive. Hope you had a lovely party, but now’s the time to leave.” This is why Minerva takes such enormous pains to smuggle Ulysses, disguised and with secret allies, into the hall. If Ulysses does not return by surprise, in arms, and in severity, he’s a dead hero, and the grasping villains known as suitors will inherit the kingdom, unjustly, forever. By their very uninvited presence, they are a willing threat to Penelope, to Ulysses, to Telemachus, and to Ithaca. They all deserve to die. That Ulysses actually spares two of them constitutes a level of mercy so overflowing that it might as well be wine at the festival of Bacchus. And, yes, the unfaithful servants, including the handmaids who slept with the suitors, all deserve death also. They are traitors.
Wetta doesn’t understand the simple facts of The Inferno, either – and he actually has the nerve to accuse Dante of being mistaken in his scholarship. Wetta’s impertinence occurs (again) in his glossary, where he feels the need to tell the reader about the Minotaur. In mythology, rather than in roleplaying games, Minos, later Judge of the Underworld, was burdened with the monstrous child of his wife, Pasiphaë. This child was called the Minotaur, or Bull of Minos. “Dante, however, confuses the king with the creature,” says Wetta, “and assigns him the task of greeting condemned souls at the Entrance of Hell” (335). More than anything else, this assertion demonstrates that Fr. Wetta needs remedial reading instruction.
Here’s what really happens in The Inferno. Minos – not confused with the Minotaur – assigns the dead to their circles as they enter the Underworld. But he himself has been rendered monstrous. He has a serpentine tail with which he indicates the number of the circle to which the sinner is consigned:
Cignesi con la coda tante volte
Quanunque gradi vuol che giú sia messa (Inferno, V, 11-12).
The Minotaur – under that name and with the expected appearance – shows up in Canto 12: “Vid’io lo Minotauro far cotale” (line 25).
Dante has confused nothing. He has visited on Minos a new and monstrous appearance – presumably as punishment for the king’s own sins. Dante can rightly say to the scholarly Fr. Wetta: “Sbagliato di nuovo, maccabeo!”
Once again, it’s difficult to see how Fr. Wetta could involve himself in this particular idiocy. The text says what the text says. How did Wetta dig something different out of it? It is possible that a translation might contain the word “monster” in reference to Minos, and that someone skimming such a text, rather than reading it, might conclude that Minos, being a monster, had been confused with the Minotaur. This someone would need, however, to possess a pretty elevated jump-to-conclusions quotient. And pretty poor skimming skills.
Fr. Wetta builds up his error score with countless factoids about Greco-Roman culture and particularly about the Achaeans of Ulysses’ day. There’s only time to address the most offensive. One of these lies in Wetta’s assertion that “the ancient Greeks had no interior sense of honor – no ‘self-esteem’ in the modern sense” (337). They were only interested in what other people said about them (335). What the Inferno an “interior sense of honor” might be I have no idea. Honor is not “self-esteem” – that contemptible educationalist term which Wetta appears to take seriously and which he incorporates into his previous book. Honor is still respect granted by others. I’m forced to guess here at Wetta’s nonce sense of “honor.” I’m guessing he means internal judgment of self based on conscience.
Did the ancient Greeks lack such judgment? Of course not. Here’s Epictetus, writing in the first century A.D., and quoting Apollonius, writing in the first century B.C.: “If you wish to train for your soul’s sake, when you are thirsty in hot weather take a mouthful of cold water and spit it out and tell no one!” (Encheiridion, Chapter 12). And here’s Antisthenes, teaching shortly after the death of Socrates: “It is a royal privilege to do good and be spoken ill of” (Diogenes Laërtius, Book VI). Contrary to what the aloof Christian scholar Augustinus Wetta believes, the ancient Greeks had an interior life just as rich as his own, if not more so. They cared about right and wrong, doing the one and avoiding the other, just as much as Wetta does, if not more so. And they didn’t care about reputation, or define it as an ultimate good, any more than he does.
Another example – they really are too numerous to list in a reasonable space – is the place in his glossary where Wetta lists an entry on the bow: “By Greek standards, the weapon of a coward” (333). If by this comment Wetta is referring to the Greeks of Ulysses’ day, he’s simply supplying data (as he often does) where none exists. Knox tells us that we know nothing historically about Greece before 700 B.C. (Fagles 7). All our knowledge of this period comes from archeology and from the Homeric poems themselves. Therefore, when Wetta lectures us on “the Achaeans,” he’s either making something up or misunderstanding one of the Homeric poems. In the case of the bow, Wetta is misreading this line, spoken by Menelaus after Paris wounds him with an arrow: “A coward’s weapon never hurts the brave” (Iliad, Book 11). Wetta concludes from this single line that all the Achaeans considered the bow a weapon of a coward. What it really means is that Menelaus regards Paris (rightly) as a coward. One of the heroes among the Achaeans, Philoctetes, is principally known as an archer on the battlefield, and no one calls him a coward.
If Wetta seeks evidence from Greek culture generally, he gets himself into even greater trouble. After all, carrying the bow is one of the attributes of Apollo, God of the Lyre, God of the Plague, God of the Wolf. (All of these attributes are connected: the lyre is a bow that produces music, Apollo’s arrows bring the plague, and wolves typically show up to eat the plague victims.) Is Apollo a coward? He is, after all, conqueror of the primordial Python. Furthermore, Hercules (Herakles) uses the bow. (In fact, Philoctetes inherits the bow of Hercules.) Was Hercules a coward? Tell him to his face!
Wetta’s silly misreading at this point, and his inflation of it into a general law of Greek culture, is very much in his usual vein. But it is also rooted in his overarching motivation. He wants archery to be the practice of cowards because he wants to brand Ulysses a coward.
The principal focus of Fr. Wetta’s narrative is simply to demean and debase all the Homeric heroes – and Ulysses, his narrator, worst of all. If Wetta’s book were entirely a matter of humor, wit, and satire, this focus would be in keeping with Greco-Roman literary tradition – but Wetta would need to exercise a lot more humor and wit than he actually manages. As things stand, he merely practices casual derogatory misrepresentation. In other words, Fr. Wetta lies – and with malicious intent. It seems obvious to me that his boneheaded characterization of Ulysses as the “murderer” of Amphinomus – wrong on two counts – is simply an egregious error. It would make no sense for Wetta to lie about such a thing. On the other hand, some of his other misrepresentations are just as obviously deliberate.
Take his treatment of the greatest of the greatest of the Greeks, “iron-hearted, man-slaying Achilles,” as Auden calls the hero. Keep in mind that Homer contributed two long narrative poems to world literature. The second celebrates Ulysses. It is the poem most esteemed by moderns. The first addresses Achilles. It is the poem most esteemed by the ancients. Alexander the Great carried this poem – The Iliad – with him everywhere he went, as a sort of handbook. And Alexander’s attitude was in no way exceptional.
What does Fr. Wetta have to say about the hero of The Iliad? Fr. Wetta dismisses both Achilles and Agamemnon with the same term. And he doesn’t even take full responsibility for this casual sneer in his own voice. He puts it into the mouth of his intolerably-chatty version of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “You squandered your talent among brutes like Agamemnon and Achilles,” says the Mother of God, whom Ulysses takes at the time for the Goddess Minerva (17).
Are Agamemnon and Achilles mere brutes? I’ll let someone else – maybe the glorious Orestes – stick up for Agamemnon. However, I’ll defend the central figure of The Iliad, the greatest of the Greeks, myself. A brute he is not. He is, in reality, one of the noblest figures in all our literature.
At one point in his super-scholarly notes, Fr. Wetta refers to a translation of The Iliad by Robert Fagles, with introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Once again, it’s hard to believe that Fr. Wetta has actually studied the book he cites. Bernard Knox’s introduction addresses the character of Achilles at length. For one thing, Knox recognizes that Achilles does something that Fr. Wetta says is impossible for those benighted Achaeans. When he refuses the embassy of Agamemnon, Achilles demonstrates an indifference to public glory as compared to his own internal sense of right and wrong (Fagles 50). How did he do that without Fr. Wetta to instruct him?
According to Knox also, Achilles is anything but a brute when he reverses course and returns to the war – all to avenge his friend Patroclus:
Human beings must put limits to their sorrow, to their passions; they must recognize the animal need for food and drink. But not Achilles. He will not eat while Hector still lives. And, as if to point up the godlike nature of his passionate intensity, Homer has Athena sustain him, without his knowledge, on nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods (55).
Indeed, though the word “god-like” is applied to several heroes in The Iliad, Knox tells us that the only other mortal figure to approach Achilles in intrinsic dignity is Helen (45). So is Achilles a “brute”? Or a god?
Knox goes even further – beyond Achilles’ status in the world of the poem – and places him in the context of Western literature: “Homer’s Achilles is clearly the model for the tragic hero of the Sophoclean stage. His stubborn, passionate devotion to an ideal image of self is the same force that drives Antigone, Oedipus, Ajax, and Philoctetes” (63).
Now Aeschylus has his partisans, as does Euripides. But Sophocles is the exemplary tragic poet, and the Sophoclean hero is the exemplary tragic hero, the agonist with the mostest. We know this because the most important literary critic of the Greco-Roman world, Aristotle, chose the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles as the model tragedy for treatment in the Poetics. The agonist, according to Aristotle, must have tragic stature. He cannot just be a common person with common problems. And who was the model for the agonist in the plays of Sophocles? Homer’s Achilles.
Perhaps Fr. Wetta has new insights into various figures of Greco-Roman mythology. Supposedly, Nietzsche had such insights. Supposedly, so did Freud. Therefore, although it’s boundlessly unlikely, it may be that the Great Wetta has such insights, too. But that doesn’t mean that he can casually dismiss everything that has ever been thought about such figures before his new and inspired insights entered the expectant world of discourse. It doesn’t mean that he can dismiss Achilles, or even Agamemnon, as a “brute.” And it certainly doesn’t mean that he can put such contemptible sentiments, couched in the snarky speaking style of an unthinking wiseass, into the mouth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This not only demeans Achilles. It demeans the Mother of God.
Fr. Wetta does this sort of thing to any Homeric hero he can lay his mitts on. For example, he says of Telamonian Ajax: “Because of his enormous size and strength, it was often assumed that Ajax must be dull of intellect. He was” (332). Ajax as a big, simpleminded guy – a sort of Achaean Incredible Hulk without the verdant complexion – strikes Fr. Wetta as obvious. Aren’t all big, strong guys dummies – at least compared to keen-witted Wetta?
However, there is absolutely no warrant in the text, or in any associated mythological source, for Fr. Wetta’s characterization. Telamonian Ajax is actually represented as shrewd strategist and tactician. He’s also a skilled speaker, inspiring the Achaeans to defend their ships in Book 15. He’s sent with Ulysses and Phoenix in Book 9 to persuade Achilles to rejoin the cause. He fails in this aim, but that failure can hardly be held against him. Even Ulysses fails. “Well hast thou spoke,” says Achilles in response to Ajax. Would he say this to the big, dumb guy? Come to think of it, would the Achaeans even send a big, dumb guy on such a mission? Clearly, they would not.
In other words, Fr. Wetta’s summation of Ajax’s character, intended to impress the ignorant reader with a background knowledge that doesn’t exist, is yet another example of the factoids that our monkish minister of mendacity generates as a matter of course. Wetta has just made it up.
Liars, Liars, Cowards, and Liars
Fr. Wetta holds a lot of petty and wrongheaded grudges against Ulysses, whom he burdens with the task of starring in his baggy narrative. For example, he represents Ulysses’ triumph in the Contest of the Bow – at the end of Book 21 of The Odyssey, just before the slaughter of the suitors – as a mere trick: “I looked for Penelope. She had returned with the Harpies and stood amid a circle of admiring Centaurs, showing them how to string my bow” (314). Stringing the bow of Ulysses, you see, according to the systematic deprecation of Fr. Wetta, is something even a woman can do. And surely Fr. Wetta, an athletic male, a surfer and lifeguard, no less, could do it standing on his head – if only he were taught the trick!
The text of The Odyssey says quite otherwise. It is completely clear that the suitors – mostly athletic men – fail to string the bow because they are not strong enough. Nor would I be strong enough. Nor would Fr. Wetta. Why can Ulysses do it? Because he’s stronger than any ordinary man. He’s a hero.
“I mourn the common cause: for, oh, my friends,
On me, on all, what grief, what shame attends!
Not the lost nuptials can affect me more
(For Greece has beauteous dames on every shore),
But baffled thus! confess’d so far below
Ulysses’ strength, as not to bend his bow!
How shall all ages our attempt deride!
Our weakness scorn!”
This is the lament of Eurymachus, one of the mightiest of the suitors. The Greek word in this passage is bia, and there’s no doubt that it means physical strength. “Bie Herakleious” – the Strength of Hercules – is a familiar proverbial phrase.
Common sense also rejects Fr. Wetta’s obnoxious interpretation here. What trick does Wetta imagine applies to stringing Ulysses’ bow? The bow is a recurve. To string it, you slip the string over the notch at one end, put the concave side of the same limb against your left ankle, put the middle of the bow against the back of your right knee, and use your right arm to bend the remaining limb toward the other end of the string. If you’re strong enough, you can bend the bow far enough and hook the other limb – then start executing justice. Ulysses can do it because he’s a hero. No ordinary man could do it – nor could Penelope, nor I, nor Fr. Wetta.
There’s no trick.
This little sneer, however, is nothing next to the major calumnies committed against the Lord of Ithaca. Fr. Wetta actually labors to present Ulysses as a compulsive liar and a coward.
That the wisest of the Greeks tells tales is beyond question, and sometimes he employs these fictions to deceive others. He can justly be designated a liar. In fact, Minerva praises Ulysses for his subtlety in such endeavors:
“O still the same Ulysses! (she rejoin’d,)
In useful craft successfully refined!
Artful in speech, in action, and in mind!
Sufficed it not that, thy long labors passed,
Secure thou seest thy native shore at last?
But this to me? Who, like thyself, excel
In arts of counsel and dissembling well;
To me? Whose wit exceeds the power divine,
No less than mortals are surpass’d by thine” (Odyssey, Book 13).
Minerva not only upholds Ulysses’ skill in dissembling as a laudable achievement. She claims the very same quality for herself. She’s glad that Ulysses is, like her, deinos – clever. The only reproach she offers is that he presumed to employ such cleverness on her. And even this reproach is meant more as a joke than as a serious charge. She is, after all, in disguise, appearing “in the form of a shepherd.” (I quote Pope’s argument at the beginning of Book 13.) In reality, Minerva is praising Ulysses, but reminding him that she remains his superior.
Ulysses is a liar, but his lies need to be put in their proper context. He does not, as Wetta pretends, tell lies just for the heck of it, or to perfect his technique. He is almost always practicing some sort of deception in warfare – for example, against Polyphemus, or against the suitors, or, in the example above, when he arrives on the shores of his own kingdom, which he knows to be hostile territory. This does not excuse direct lying. St. Thomas permits ambushes in warfare – but only because they are a matter of withholding truth rather than directly conveying falsehoods.
Still, Ulysses’ teachers, including Minerva, have not been as exacting as St. Thomas. To me, it’s surprising that he tells the truth as often and as effectively as he does. At any rate, he is not the kind of liar who lies to himself, and in whom there is no truth left at all. He is not an habitual liar.
Surely, when Ulysses returns in disguise to his own court, his dissimulations are understandable. He presents himself as a beggar, and clouds his true identity with more than a gallon of ingenious dishonesty. However, honesty in this context means death for himself, his son, and his kingdom. He has, after all, been instructed in this particular dissimulation by his tutelary deity, Minerva. He is not idly pretending to be a master of Latin prose when he doesn’t know the difference between a first conjugation verb and a third conjugation verb. He is not pretending he knows The Inferno when he can’t tell the difference between Minos and the Minotaur. Time in Purgatory? No doubt. But he shouldn’t be held up to scorn from the fan base of Ignatius Press.
Fr. Wetta’s first major charge against Ulysses is true but exaggerated. His second charge – that Ulysses is a coward – is deliberately linked to the first, but is in itself a contemptible lie.
In order to promote this falsehood, Fr. Wetta needs to rewrite an incident from Book 11 of The Iliad. Ulysses has just killed Charops, Son of Hippasus (Hippasos), a warrior on the Trojan side. Socus (Sokos), brother of Charops, rushes up to do battle with one of the champions of the Greeks. In The Iliad, Socus addresses Ulysses with respect:
“O great Ulysses, much-enduring man!
Not deeper skill’d in every martial sleight
Than worn to toils, and active in the fight!”
Socus wounds Ulysses, who threatens his opponent in complete confidence and then kills him.
That’s not how it happens in Wetta World. Instead, Ulysses is a coward and false braggart from the beginning of the encounter. “I made a show of rattling my shield and stabbed some poor sap who looked like he was already dead” (42). Thus the death of Charops. Then Socus shows up: “This enormous hulk of a man, a real side of beef…. This was a man who had seen a fight or two, and I knew from the moment that I set eyes on him that I was in serious trouble” (42-43). Even worse, once the banter starts, the enormous hulk says: “Of course I know you. You are Odysseus, the Ithacan, that cowardly schemer” (43). In other words, according to Fr. Wetta, Ulysses not only is in fact a coward, but is widely reputed to be a coward. There is, of course, no basis in the Homeric poems for such a characterization. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey make frequent references not only to Ulysses’ strategic and tactical cunning but to his courage.
The actual context of the fight against Socus is a prominent example. Instead of stabbing “some poor sap” as described by Wetta, Ulysses is actually holding the field alone against the enemy army – after Diomed is wounded by an arrow. He puts himself through this little monologue:
“What danger, singly if I stand the ground,
My friends all scatter’d, all the foes around?
Yet wherefore doubtful? Let this truth suffice,
The brave meets danger, and the coward flies.
To die or conquer, proves a hero’s heart;
And, knowing this, I know a soldier’s part.”
Then he lays on like Umslopogaas atop the stairway, slaying Deiopis, Ennomus, Thoon, and Chersidamas before he polishes off Charops and Socus. A coward? A scaredy-cat? Holding the field all by himself and killing six of the enemy before he is put out of action? You can see why Fr. Wetta, whose intention is fundamentally dishonest, rewrites not the whole encounter but only the tail end of it. How would he account for Ulysses’ standing his ground unaided? How would he account for all the slaughter before that “real side of beef” showed up?
Yet Wetta assures us – as a matter of fact, and referring not to his own fevered daydream but to the actual Iliad – that Ulysses “was rarely seen on the front line” (335). Really? Where does that observation come from? Ulysses is on the front line as often as anybody else. He’s not the greatest warrior of the Greeks. That is the “brute” Achilles – who so far transcends the measure of other men that he was terrifying the enemy when he first took the field as a skinny teenager. Nor does Ulysses do the deeds of Diomed or Ajax. But he comes close. Once Achilles storms off to sit out the struggle, Ulysses is one of the three principal threats that the Achaeans retain. And to take fourth place in that army is no cause for shame. Remember that Ulysses’ peers and the men he slays in combat aren’t “poor slobs” or even just “sides of beef.” They are also figures of heroic stature.
Common sense, proceeding from what everybody knows about Ulysses, could easily demonstrate that he was no coward. Would a coward keep his head once captured by the Cyclops? Would a coward face the hall full of suitors with scant allies? When Ulysses reveals himself on that occasion, Eurymachus presumes to speak on behalf of the whole company and offers the king peace on good terms. A coward could easily avoid the ensuing fight without the public shame that Wetta claims governs every Achaean consideration. Instead, he goes ahead:
“Your blood is my demand, your lives the prize,
Till pale as yonder wretch each suitor lies.
Hence with those coward terms; or fight or fly;
This choice is left you, to resist or die” (Odyssey, Book 22).
Dante’s treatment of Ulysses – a hostile treatment – further makes it clear that a lack of courage is not the hero’s problem. After Dante’s Ulysses has come from the Trojan War and faced the perils of the sea, he convinces his men to sail through the Pillars of Hercules and out onto the unknown Atlantic (Inferno, Canto 26). Is this the decision of a coward? I know it’s fashionable to deprecate Columbus nowadays. But was Columbus a coward? Were the conquistadors cowards? Was Magellan?
Wetta’s portrait of Ulysses is not only mistaken and insulting. It is implausible to the point of absurdity. Ulysses simply cannot be the coward that Wetta portrays.
Here readers may wonder: if Ulysses was such an exemplary and virtuous character, why did Dante place him in Hell in the first place? It’s not a difficult question. Dante tells us why.
It’s important to recognize here, however, something that Wetta and even his fans seem not to. Dante never read the Homeric poems (Fagles 5). They hadn’t been translated, and Dante didn’t read Greek. Dante didn’t know what was in The Iliad and The Odyssey.
So Dante’s knowledge of Ulysses was fragmentary, derived from The Aeneid and other Latin sources. Dante didn’t even know that Ulysses made it back to Ithaca. Working from incomplete sources only, Dante condemns Ulysses for two specific crimes. First, he concocted the scheme of the Trojan Horse. Second, he recruited Achilles from his place hiding amongst women and brought the ultimate Achaean weapon to Troy (Inferno, Canto 26). In other words, Ulysses is condemned for taking the two most important actions that lead to victory in the war.
But wait! Victorious warriors aren’t all in Dante’s Inferno. Alexander the Great is in the Seventh Circle, amongst the Violent, though the exact identity of the Alexander named is in some dispute. But Julius Caesar isn’t in Hell at all. It’s his betrayers that end up in Hell, in the very mouth of the Devil, next to Judas Iscariot. What’s going on here? Wasn’t Julius as violent as Alexander? And how can Ulysses be charged with deception in his recruitment of Achilles when he was really undoing a deception – exposing Achilles, who was disguised as a girl in the court of Lycomedes, as the bad-ass super-masculine fighting machine that he truly was? How can Dante be so unfair?
Dear Reader: it’s politics. It is difficult for any modern to understand fully the internecine conflicts of medieval Europe. Suffice it to say that, as a member of the White Guelphs, exiled for life from his beloved native city, Dante ended a strong supporter of the Roman Emperor in secular affairs, and therefore often an opponent of the Pope. His Latin treatise De Monarchia explicitly develops his argument for this preference. In a “Disclaimer” to The Eighth Arrow (and, boy, does it need one!), Fr. Wetta has Ulysses inform the reader that he never really went to Hell – and then argue that Dante’s Inferno is bunk because the great poet sent “Pope Celestine – Saint Celestine!” (11) to Hell, too. Typical of his level of “strong scholarship,” Wetta fails to realize that Ulysses and Celestine are sent to Hell for the same reason, because they worked against the Roman Emperor – Ulysses by defeating Troy and Celestine by abdicating and allowing the hated Boniface to occupy the Chair of Peter.
By the way, in the “Disclaimer,” Wetta also has Ulysses confess to being a “murderer” – not true, at least according to the Homeric poems. Who’s a liar now?
Not every deficiency in The Eighth Arrow derives directly from Fr. Wetta’s corrupt goal of demeaning the heroes of the Homeric world. At the beginning of his Glossary, Wetta presents us with the following paragraph:
I once had a conversation with Reginald Foster, the renowned authority on spoken Latin. I asked him which pronunciation of Latin was the most authentic. “All of them,” he answered. “Because the Roman Empire was so vast, no matter how you choose to speak Latin today, there was surely someone who spoke it that way in the ancient world.” I think it’s fair to assume that ancient Greek was spoken with the same variety as well. Moreover, the Greeks of the Bronze Age were no more likely to speak Homeric Greek than Englishmen of Shakespeare’s day were likely to speak in iambic pentameter. The ancient Greeks must have used slang, contractions, and all the casual corruptions that inevitably creep into the spoken word. In this book, they have crept into Odysseus’ speech as well (331).
There’s so much deception packed into The Eighth Arrow that, if it were repackaged, it could sell every bridge on the North American continent to unsuspecting entrepreneurs. But this single paragraph is by far the most dishonest exercise in the whole sorry mess.
Is anyone reading critically here? What does the variety of Latin pronunciations in the Roman world have to do with how Ulysses should speak in the Inferno as imagined by Dante? Even if it were true that the Greek of Ulysses’ era featured a variety of pronunciations, what would that variety have to do with the rhetorical tone adopted by Ulysses in English? Pronunciation and tone are two different things. And what’s this silly reference to “iambic pentameter”? Englishmen of Shakespeare’s day didn’t typically speak in meter, but their diction may have corresponded very closely to Shakespeare’s. Meter and diction are two very different things. A skilled versifier can write iambic pentameter using slang, using ordinary diction, and using elevated diction. It’s clear that Fr. Wetta can’t do that, but a lot of people can. Why confuse these two very different things?
I can tell you exactly why this contemptibly deceptive paragraph is in the book. Online reviews of The Eighth Arrow feature endless observations of the “slangy” informal diction. There is no doubt that Fr. Wetta distributed his manuscript to various advisers before publication. There is no doubt that many if not all of these found a problem with the “slangy” style. Rather than revise his style, rather than elevate it to fit the dignity of his characters, Fr. Wetta came up with and appended a flimsy, transparent excuse. “Hey, kids! My slangy informal diction is justified because there were various pronunciations of Latin in the Roman Empire, and because 16th-century Brits didn’t typically speak in pentameter. Got it?” If you observe the non sequitur, you’re being truly uncharitable. But you’re also telling the truth.
The real reason for Fr. Wetta’s failure to write with the diction appropriate to his characters and themes is obvious. Fr. Wetta is an incompetent writer. He is incapable of producing prose in a style suitable to such admirable and elevated characters as Ulysses and Diomed. This is why so many readers question Wetta’s “slangy” style.
It used to be necessary for writers in the stable of Marvel Comics to write in a high and self-consciously antiquated style – because the Mighty Thor, a principal figure in the Marvel Universe, spoke in such a manner. All of these old-time comic book writers were far superior to Fr. Wetta in their range of styles. And writers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe are also far superior. Even in Endgame – a real dog of a movie, which features a fat Thor who plays video games in the basement – the lines given to the Norse God of Thunder are far better than anything Fr. Wetta could write.
Fr. Wetta’s stylistic ineptitude is painfully evident when the Benedictines’ gift to fantasy fiction ventures into the treacherous realm of verse. Here is the rhyme that Wetta generously presents to his readers:
One realm lies behind them,
Four realms yet uncrossed.
Two realms more and arrows four—
One left, one loaned, one lost (163).
And, in case you’re not canny enough to follow Fr. Wetta’s scintillations, he explains what he’s doing here: “These verses recall the Ring’s inscription read by Gandalf in… The Fellowship of the Ring…” (343). Do they really, Father? These verses don’t have the same meter as the inscription in The Lord of the Rings. They don’t have the same rhyme scheme. Also, they use the word “loan” as a verb. Ugh! How do they mirror the lines in The Lord of the Rings? Well, they do so because Fr. Wetta explains in this notes that they do so. That’s why! Oh, and also the word “one” is repeated in both little verses!
There is one place in The Eighth Arrow where the high style is actually achieved. But does this brief success falsify my conclusion that Fr. Wetta is a lousy stylist? Not at all. Fr. Wetta achieves the high style by literally ripping off J.R.R. Tolkien.
Actually, Fr. Wetta rips off his whole denouement from Tolkien. In a highly-contrived fashion, he arranges for Ulysses to stand in for Aragorn, Telemachus to stand in for Frodo, and Hades to stand in for Sauron. Cool, huh? Then he gives us the following passage:
And even at that moment all the hosts of Hell trembled, doubt clutched their hearts, their hands shook, and their limbs were loosed. The power that drove them on and filled them with hate and fury wavered; its will was removed from them. And now, looking into the eyes of their enemies, they saw a deadly light and were afraid (310).
In case you missed the reference, Fr. Wetta explains it on page 347. It’s good to have clarity. However, it’s also good to recognize that Fr. Wetta can’t do his own writing.
Now, in fairness to Fr. Wetta, there are two fine things in The Eighth Arrow. They don’t save the book because they don’t contribute to the whole. But they’d be great in a science fiction story that didn’t feature the hero Ulysses. The first is the explanation from Proteus of how he achieved his shape-shifting powers (266-269). The second is the picture of the Devil, immersed in the Lake of Ice, scooping up enemy (and even friendly) combatants and gulping them down (306-307). That image is comic gold. If it were the center of a consistent satire, it would justify the whole book. Alas, in its context, it spoils rather than justifies! It’s something that would fit in Bored of the Rings, not The Lord of the Rings. Fr. Wetta doesn’t know what kind of book he’s capable of writing.
He’s not capable of writing high fantasy.
A Cloud of Witnesses
Despite the defects in his product, J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B., has to be one of the most lauded authors in the history of literature. Comments on the back of the book come from the usual suspects — other members of the Ignatius Press authorial establishment. These include Eleanor Nicholson, who edited the execrable Ignatius Critical Edition of Dracula and also wrote a vampire novel of her own, Michael O’Brien, who gave us the almost Dostoyevskian Father Elijah, and Joseph Pearce, who produced the best secondary work available on G.K. Chesterton, entitled Wisdom and Innocence. Also commenting in this venue are Mike Mullin and Marly Youmans, two successful genre writers from outside the Ignatius stable.
Fr. Wetta’s own web site features comments from two more literary professionals, Louis Marcos and Robert Cirasa. That’s a whole lot of admiration.
I will note in passing that some of these reviewers say stupid things. “Classicists will cheer,” says Eleanor Nicholson. Well, they will if they don’t know Latin and have never read The Iliad or The Odyssey. “Odysseus’ quest for escape from eternal death is revealed as a purgatorial spiritual odyssey,” says Michael O’Brien, “which in the end shows him that he cannot save himself.” O’Brien apparently doesn’t recall that, in Homer, Ulysses consistently relies on Minerva, not just on himself. “That faint noise?” writes Marly Youmans. “The faraway applause of the Inklings.” Ha! Even if it were well executed, Tolkien would hate this story – for the same reason that he hated The Chronicles of Narnia. “I can’t imagine any reader,” says Robert Cirasa, who won’t enjoy Wetta’s narrative. Expand your imagination, Mr. Cirasa!
However, my responses on these points are merely asides. Everybody says stupid things now and then, no matter how smart they are. Even Bobby Fischer dropped games over the chessboard.
What really disturbs me about Fr. Wetta’s cloud of witnesses is the question of honesty. Don’t any of these people know Latin – or at least enough Latin to tell the difference between the first conjugation and the third? Haven’t any of them read The Odyssey – or at least enough of it to know who kills Amphinomus and under what circumstances? Don’t any of them know that it is Minos, not the Minotaur, who “greets” sinners when they enter Dante’s Inferno? Haven’t any of them imbibed enough of the tragic spirit, even indirectly, to see that Achilles is a hero and not a “brute”? In short, haven’t any of these literary pros bothered to exercise the slightest critical intelligence while making their way through this cringeworthy, ill-composed mass of pretension and outright fraud?
This eagerness to glad-hand one another around the campfire is a pestilence that infects the organs of Catholic culture in a disgraceful fashion – and it especially corrupts the concerns and commentators that profess a desire to promote and defend orthodoxy. No matter how wretched a production is, a quick coat of Catholic paint will serve to win plaudits from the Association of Catholic Scribblers and to conceal defects, no matter how glaring.
This bogus niceness is not charity – for charity is rooted in truth – and does not serve the gospel. Rather, it tends to reinforce age-old critiques against the Church, to the effect that Christians are ignorant spiritual poseurs, undermining learning with slapdash verbiage and virtue with attacks on the virtuous figures of the larger culture.
The Emperor Julian’s school laws targeted Christians in the learned professions by forbidding them to teach the Greco-Roman classics. After all, if they didn’t believe in the classics, why were they teaching them?
The school laws failed, largely because Julian died. And the school laws, though clever, were intrinsically unjust. Many Christians were as learned as pagans and could teach grammar, rhetoric, and poetry from the classics just as they were supposed to be taught.
However, if Julian had possessed The Eighth Arrow as an example of “strong Christian scholarship,” he could have convinced St Athanasius himself to support the tyrannical school laws.
Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Church, R.W. Dante: An Essay, to Which Is Appended a Translation of De Monarchia. Project Gutenberg, 2010.
Dante, Divina Commedia. Amazon Digital Services, 2010.
Haggard, H. Rider. Allan Quatermain. Open Road Media, 2016.
Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, introduction and notes Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Homer, The Iliad, trans. Alexander Pope. Amazon Digital Services, 2012.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Alexander Pope. Amazon Digital Services, 2012.
Wetta, J. Augustine. The Eighth Arrow. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018.