It’s a pleasure to spotlight the virtue of fiction by exploring Father Augustine Wetta’s journey in creating his enjoyable epic, The Eighth Arrow. Father Augustine is a friend of mine. My 14-year-old son and I had the opportunity to sit down with Father recently to discuss the 14-year quest to bring us this extraordinary book. It’s a unique synthesis of ancient classic settings and characters brought to life in a new adventure. Imagine a buddy-journey jail-break tale set within Dante’s Inferno, and the “hero” is Homer’s Odysseus … on a whole new odyssey.
The Eighth Arrow is a novel that compresses Christian literary lineage so that what is ancient becomes new and fresh. This is a rare and wonderful treasure … especially because virtue itself is being resurrected.
A Story Born of an Unlikely Friendship
Father Augustine described the genesis of this story as a result of an encounter with famed novelist and atheist Phillip Pullman. Father Augustine, as a monk studying in England at the time, walked three miles from the Oxford campus to boldly knock on Pullman’s door. He engaged the atheist in a friendly conversation. Over a tasty dandelion cordial, the two forged an unlikely friendship and discussed many things. They explored favorite classical stories and characters. Father expressed sympathy for the way Odysseus was, in his opinion, wrongfully condemned to hell in Dante’s Inferno. Perhaps a story could be written to redeem and free him. Pullman challenged Wetta to write it.
The Craftsmanship of Art
The process of writing The Eighth Arrow has been a lesson in which Father Augustine truly honed his skill in the craftsmanship of art. With a first manuscript completed, a series of major revisions followed over time. The story arc needed clarity. Revision. Readers needed to smell, taste, see, and hear the tale better. Another revision. Originally, Odysseus was alone on the journey, yet after reading a range of other adventure genres from Lonesome Dove to Don Quixote, Father saw the value of a buddy journey. Another revision. Questions about theology arose. No one actually escapes hell. The preface was added. The length of this arduous creative journey was not lost on my son as we listened to Father tell his story.
The Eighth Arrow’s Target Reader
We talked about the target reader of The Eighth Arrow, which Father described as a book for high-school and college students, grownups, and “smart” kids. The story itself is a great ride, but the way it is saturated with allusions to Homer and Dante, make it the perfect “gateway drug” for classic literature. With the heart of a teacher, Father wanted to make younger readers “work at it.” He describes the book as “deep fun.” He worked to give readers a substantive story that goes beyond the newer popular watered-down mythologies.
Father was most excited to create the action scenes, and almost cut out the more subtle story lines. However, somewhat surprisingly, many readers, like my son, thoroughly enjoy the relational moments, such as Odysseus’ encounter with Penelope.
A Quick Teen Take
My son, known as PG, is part of team of 4 teens who do a blog called “Beyond the Trend Teens Recommend” to look beyond what may be “trending” in culture. They highlight Catholic creatives who work to #BEtheChange to make the world a #BeTTeR place. The bloggers recommend great choices to WATCH, READ, and LISTEN. PG typically focuses on film and video content creators, but he enjoyed sitting down with Father Augustine and me. Check out the BTTR blog.
“PG” gave The Eighth Arrow a thumbs up. His overall impression was that it was challenging to get into the story, but worth the effort. The ending was his favorite part because it was action-packed and it was great the way many favorite characters worked together to achieve a victory.
Beyond the YA Status Quo
We discussed Father’s motivation in creating this story, which goes beyond just weaving a great yarn. He longs to give families alternatives to the now-standard “Young Adult” fare. A big trend in young-adult writing is to idolize youth. Popular YA novels inflate the egos of teens with stories that render adults, especially parents, as comedy targets to be mocked or just ineffective, somewhat obsolete, story filler.
Priming Reader Appreciation
If families have a middle-grade son or daughter who might like the challenge of The Eighth Arrow, Father Augustine recommended some other stories to “prime the pump” for their appreciation. First, try acquainting them with the outrageously creative moral universe found in German fairy tales like Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. Then enable them to explore a children’s version of Dante and/or Homer so they can have a frame of reference. Father Augustine’s book is filled with notes to give an easy reference to understand and recognize the hidden allusions. These are helpful to any age reader.
A Modern Chapter in the Ancient Human Story
Father Augustine spoke of the importance of Mythopeia, in which “every generation interprets myths anew.” He shared how J.R.R. Tolkien’s skill at myth-making wove ancient myths into fresh storytelling. Father believes that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and that there is value in building modern stories on the shoulders of giants of the past. Father has infused a lot of history, and classic mythology into the book. And the best hidden surprise is that Christian virtue is embedded in the pages, gently and naturally inspiring a desire for the habits of, yes … holiness, in the reader. Brilliant minds from across the ages have described the value of fiction to inspire virtue. Read this article by a current scholar who supports the idea with modern research.
“I like Odysseus, because he’s such a mess-up”
Father concluded our conversation by sharing why he likes Odysseus: “Because he’s such a mess-up.” He’s had big adventures because of his failures. His failures are continually doorways to strength. A pivotal turning point in the story is at an encounter with Homer. Odysseus realizes that “lies don’t work” and he learns to keep his word. As in so many of our real lives, he discovers the value of virtue as he lives though hell.
Like us, Father Augustine’s own past and present struggles to embrace virtue, and avoid the traps of vice, enable him to create a hero we can all relate to. Father’s book Humility Rules gives a glimpse into the witty and wonderful mind of this brilliant and gentle monk. My article Avoiding Affirmation Addiction is related to that book. It describes how the virtue of humility, finding strength in lowliness, is the path to all the other heroic virtues.
PG and I enjoyed discovering The Eighth Arrow. We’re glad that Father Augustine continued on his quest to bring it to completion. The novel, and the journey of the author to write it, are equally inspiring. This is a book that will be a personal treasure, that can make a great older teen gift. In addition, it deserves a home in the shelves of every Catholic high school library. We hope that providence allows that to happen.
Visit our Book Notes archive.
Copyright 2018 Cathy Gilmore