I sing of how Zeus, the cloud-compeller, saved mortals from the flood of words that threatened to engulf mankind.
In truth, it was Phoebus Apollo who first raised the issue. We were all gathered round the Father of gods and men in his palace on Olympus of a thousand crags when Apollo, the archer-god, rose and addressed the assembled deities: “O Immortals,” he spake,
“Humans make vast and thoughtless use of words, squandering them without number, spilling them to their hearts’ content and turning a fierce trade in them. Earth is now home to far more mortals who speak than listen, far more who write than read. Not even art is spared the curse of prolixity. In France, for instance, each festive month of Boedromion heralding the end of summer brings hundreds of new novels to market on one crazy day the French call la rentrée. Year after year, the publications, ever greater in number, and the incalculable commentaries they ineluctably give rise to, swamp the true expressions of Beauty that strive to emerge from the flood of verbiage and snuff out yet others before they have a chance to exist. It behoves us, O Immortals, to resolve the matter.”
Thus spake Apollo the protector, and his arguments displeased Pallas Athena. For Athena was proud to have lent her name to Athens, the city where words ruled supreme. Calling on her august father as witness, grey-eyed Athena argued stoutly against an intervention by the gods to stop men from piling up words without end. She was supported by Polyhymnia of a thousand speeches, goddess of rhetoric, muse of demagogues and court sophists.
Castor, proud tamer of stallions, weighed in on Apollo’s side, however. Born in Sparta, he was honoured there with a temple in the polis. And as everyone knows, contrary to the Athenians, the Spartans were true to their Laconian roots, speaking little. Erato, muse of lyric poetry, and Calliope, muse of heroic epic, deeming that the excess of prose threatened poets and bards whose voices were no longer heard, also stood with Phoebus Apollo. All the other gods then fell into two opposing camps, some for Athena, others for Apollo, like in the days of the war of Ilium, all waiting for Zeus to pass judgement.
Yet the fearsome Zeus Cronides, Zeus the far-sounding, spake not. Seeing his silence, Apollo, the leader of men, again stood. “O Zeus! O father!” he declared,
“For millennia, the Greeks have identified with Homer’s works and drawn on them to teach their children. The Indians have done the same with the Mahabharata. That, far more than the redoubtable Ganges, is what preserved them from Alexander the Great.
“Thousands of years of life for the Iliad and the Odyssey, O Zeus, O father, and as much for the Mahabharata! Can Athena tell us of a single text from among the myriads by modern mortals fated to survive not three thousand, not two thousand, not even one thousand, just five hundred short years, and containing, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Mahabharata, the quintessence of a civilisation, the very spirit of its people? In truth, she may seek but she will not find; the average lifespan of a book in today’s world rarely outlasts the year of its birth.
“O Immortals,” continued the archer-god, “the words we once gave men to sing in praise of us struggle to wing their way to us now, so freighted are they with conflicts of interest, so flat, and so little they soar. If we do not pay heed, soon words will perish, and immortal as we are, without words, who shall remember us?”
Apollo the protector spake these winged words, and his call seemed to strike a chord. Verily, he had plucked a note close to Zeus’s heart: his no less great vanity.
The voice of Zeus Cronides rang out. “The archer-god’s arrows strike true. Apollo is right,” he decreed, stepping down from his golden throne. “We must preserve the beauty and immortality of words at all costs; we must stop mortals squandering them.” Pallas Athena made as if to protest, but the father of gods and men airily waved away her objections.
“I will begin with the French,” he thundered, “to wash the taste of literary Boedromion from their mouths, and of their special trains speeding from fair to fair with convoys of writers requisitioned like so many clerks. Hermes, kindly messenger of the Gods,” he added, turning to me (I may be the god of thieves with a thousand and one names to my name, yet that is his favourite, doubtless because in entrusting me with his dirty work, I disburden him of a chore).
“Hermes, kindly messenger” – he raised his sable eyebrows – “you are to descend to Earth, to the French, and in a dream visit a man of great wealth. Though he dines on gold, he is a mortal born of mortals who, I am told, is a man of sense. He has always honoured us, making generous offerings when others preferred to forget us. You shall visit him with a command from the God of Thunder,” Zeus the Father continued, “and you shall order him to found a new literary prize, to be called the Omega Book Prize. It shall come with a prize purse of six hundred and sixty-six gold ingots. The competition shall be open to all men and women who have published at least one work of literature with a print run of at least six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six copies. On signing up, competitors must, however, undertake never to write a novel again. Whether or not they win the prize they so ardently desire, they must cease writing and publishing immediately.”
Thus spake Zeus the cloud-compeller, and a muted murmur ran through the divine assembly. “We shall see,” the Father of gods and men concluded, sitting back down on his golden throne, “how many writers – how many true writers – remain, once the mercenary pen-pushers and ego-stroking poetasters glimpse my shiny bait.”
All the deities, even Pallas Athena who could scarcely contain her wrath, even white-armed Hera who constantly nagged her glorious husband, approved his sage decision and praised his eternal wisdom.
“And now,” continued Zeus the loud-thunderer, “steal away, Hermes, kindly messenger.” He said “steal away”, not “fly”, as a pun, because despite appearances, he was quite the joker. Thus spake Zeus the aegis-bearer, and off I flew, straight down from the peaks of Olympus to the Earth below. There I came in a dream to the mortal on whom Zeus the cloud-compeller had settled (personally I found the man rather ordinary, but who was I to contradict the fearsome Son of Cronos?) and whispered Zeus’s command and advice in his ear. And he obeyed, to the letter. Very soon, the Omega Book Prize was up and running, with a generous prize purse.
It is fair to say there were few entrants in the first year. Conversely, many were the publishers, booksellers and literary critics who called it a hoax, and many the authors indignant (in the name of art, naturally!) at the attempt to muzzle them. But when they all saw TV channels vying for the entrants, and the renown that was theirs for the rest of the year, and when, later, they heard tell of the inaugural winner’s life of luxurious indolence, a host of writers rushed to enter the fray and the number of new novels went into free fall.
So successful was the literary lottery that by the end of year three, ten times fewer French novels were published than in years past. And, by Zeus, it was just the beginning! Once again, the father of gods and men had demonstrated his limitless grasp of human nature.
Some might think that the Omega Book Prize had sounded the death knell of French literature. But far from it. In fact the reverse was true: the competition sorted the wheat from the chaff. Aficionados of true beauty were no longer assailed by a mass of books designed for the market economy; they discovered true gems of literature and poetry that they shared in turn with friends and family, building a new, disinterested sociability. They also drank from the wellspring of their neglected cultural heritage, returning to their roots and their past. They were no longer consumers; they were readers.
The Omega Book Prize spread beyond France, enjoying huge success. Soon, across countries and continents, other white knights rose up, founding similar literary prizes to stem the tide of literature in their own lands, freeing it from the laws of the market and putting it back in service of the gods and of beauty.
These patrons of literature claimed no personal glory or profit, fully aware that they were serving a divine plan beyond their understanding. And that is how Zeus, the cloud-compeller, saved mankind from the flood of fleeting words that engulfed it and threatened to bring Olympus of a thousand crags and all the eternal gods crashing down into the Sea of Oblivion.
Hermes Fitzeus is an author, critic and Olympian deity – although his successful career as a writer has been achieved not through divine favour but personal merit. As the inventor of the alphabet and writing, his influence within the literary world has been disconcertingly ubiquitous. He politely requests that readers avoid seeking out his great career mistake, the twelve-episode Netflix series Medusa, Seduce Her!.