- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

By Marina Warner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 407 pages

Marina Warner has packed her fourth novel, "The Leto Bundle," with lots of ideas, cleverly elaborating them in a tapestry of tales that is never less than intriguing in implication if occasionally slightly tedious in the telling.
The core of her novel is a collection of stories about Leto. Her name means simply "Lady," and she first appears as a Titan. As museum curator Hortense Fernly notes in a lecture on remains found in a late-Hellenistic sarcophagus, "The Titans were the rather mysterious giants whose power Zeus and other Olympians took over in the case of the Titanesses, usually through rape… . This is still going on of course: in wars everywhere soldiers kill their male enemies and rape the women leaving them to bear their offspring."
In Leto's case the offspring are twins, born on a bare hillside, where they and their mother would have perished without help from a wolf. Hortense hypothesizes that Leto's history of metamorphosis and survival became the central myth of a cult religion in which Leto figured "not as a Titaness, or a towering mother goddess, but as a young persecuted fugitive," while the wolf became a familiar of goddesses of childbirth.
This tale repeats itself through time. Leto manifests again as a 12th-century child left by her father in the court of a fellow aristocrat, who at first protects her, then relegates her to the nuns of the Convent of the Swaddling Bands, then impregnates her before finally abandoning her on the eve of their marriage. Later still she is a slave girl offered to Sir Giles Skipwith, the 19th-century archeologist who discovered her temple and the sarcophagus containing the materials that have come to be known as "the Leto bundle." Finally, she appears as a refugee trying to protect her tiny children by working as a hotel maid in Tirzah, a fictionalized version of a contemporary city torn by proxy war.
This Leto who is called Ella, another name that means "she," saves her male child by allowing a childless couple to adopt him. He grows up as Kim McQuy, and appears in the book as a schoolteacher running a website called "History Starts With Us."
"It's the way things are and the way things were," explains Kim, who describes his inspiration as a conversation with Helen the name the museum has given to the Leto bundle because the face of a beautiful woman is painted on the cartonnage. What Helen/Leto said to Kim was, "I came from somewhere, but now I'm everywhere My everywhere is your here and now I am the angel of the present time… .I am one of the scattered ones, the homing doves, the wanderers, I am the angel of the present." In Kim's interpretation, "She's like millions of people who make their homes where they can… . She's about now … the planetary diaspora, of the lost peoples."
All this intrigues a journalist who interviews Kim, but Gramercy Poule, a folk-rock star into agitprop, doesn't know whether she's more aggravated or flattered. Kim's message from Helen is virtually identical to words from Gramercy's "peoples' song," Soon, though, she abandons the idea that he is plagiarist, and sees that he is as much in tune with the feeling of the times or the power of Leto as she is herself. And Gramercy and Kim are not alone. When the museum lends the Leto bundle to another institution, scores of regular visitors protest. Some even want to rebury her "Give her a bit of peace and quiet" though in fact the bundle of wrappings contains no mummy, no body.
This lack of a corpse is immaterial, suggests the author, because such tales appeal to the psyche, not to rationality.
The beating heart that pumps life-blood through the myth of Leto, the defeated goddess, also quickens the stories of the medieval lady and the 19th-century slave, and now gives substance to "The Lady of the Scattered Ones, The Angel of the Present, Lady Homeless."
The appeal of such figures is often unexamined, because the stories in which they star are marginalized as not-really-serious survivals from the Greeks, from Shakespeare's romances, from the Brothers Grimm. Marina Warner's scholarly works on myth and fairy tale has shaken this complacency by suggesting that they spring from and nurture the nonrational. "The Leto Bundle" dramatizes her theories, showing how the myth of the young refugee and her babies has fueled various religious and cult beliefs. Kim McQuy and Gramercy Poule are thus conduits, priests as it were, of widespread feelings, and scholarly Hortense Fernly, a modern dogmatist, who both legitimizes and limits belief.
The author's scholarship is both formidable in extent and illuminating in reach, not least because her sheaf of skills includes the dramatist's art of creating scenes of striking immediacy. The account of the Leto the Titaness licking clean her babies born from an egg is so rich in detail that it is as credible as anything from a conventional novel. As for the she-wolf who helps her, in the author's hands she becomes both a real wolf and a powerful totem. She thus illuminates the wolves who suckle mythic heroes and the tricky tempters of fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood."
The author is equally adept at creating the court politics swirling round the medieval Leto known as Laetitia and good, too, on the hideous reality of the besieged city where the contemporary Leto struggles to survive. Not least among the talents that makes such immediacy possible is the author's ear for language. She captures Hortense's measured scholarly tone, the cadences of Kim's demands, and the filmy mysticism of Gramercy's songs as aptly as she mimics the language of the 12th-century court or the conversations of Lycia, the wolf, and Leto, the goddess. Added to such pleasures, the book has a narrative drive that accrues from the author's deft handling of the many threads of her tales.
Yet for all the delicious richness of "The Leto Bundle," its charms sometimes dim as brilliant flights of imaginative exposition helter-skelter into barrens.
The problem is that the Leto story is a sentimental tale in which the abandoned mother has saint-like qualities that demand admiration: worship, even. Such qualities are superhuman and eventually the reader rebels against obeisance in the overly long medieval tale, perhaps, or the amplifications of the siege of Tirzah.
At such points, the contemporary world of museums, schools, websites, and singer-songwriters ensconced in moorland houses makes a welcome reappearance. But the denizens of this world Hortense, Kim, Gramercy and her household are brightly sketched rather than fully portrayed, so while they attract, they lack the electrical charge needed to power the reader through a novel of over 400 pages.
Occasional longueurs, however, are a smallish price to pay for a work of such ambition and interest.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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