"An Ant’s Journey": A Review of Geoffrey Philp’s Marcus and the Amazons

By  Michela A. Calderaro

There are plenty of things most of us parents would like to pass on to our children, yet we are seldom certain how we should go about it. Sure, we could set an example for them, respect their opinions, leave them enough space to develop on their own. But you can also sit at their bedside and read to them.

A very fine book to read before bedtime, or at any other hour of the day, is Marcus and the Amazons - the story of a young ant, Marcus, on a journey of self discovery that leads him, as part of the process, to become his people’s savior.

Marcus, who goes to the forest and comes back a different being, is summoned to save the village from a terrible peril, must make weighty choices and fight a battle with instruments that are alien to his own companions.

Marcus’s journey is more than a mere walk from his village to the forest and back. More than a youth bildungsroman. One might call it a journey through history. As Marcus’s story unfolds in front of us, we see a parallel tale of world history.

Interweaving “history” and “story,” especially in a children book, is not an easy task. But Geoffrey Philp succeeds in blending the specific and the universal with outstanding skill: historic moments are told as parts of a personal story of one child narrating it to another, in a language that is easily accessible to kids.

 Indeed, the book can be read on various levels and from different perspectives, making the reading enjoyable for both children and grownups. While children will no doubt be holding their breath in expectation for the next plot twist, to learn how Marcus, the new champion of a non-violence creed, will lead his people to regain control of their village, adults are certain to find pleasure in detecting historical or classical references.
Such historical references – to Queen Victoria and the British Empire, the enslavement of whole peoples and the setting of a colonial rule – are reflected here in the fictional Amazons Empire and their own Queen Victoria. Other references one is likely to consider are Martin Luther King’s “Million Man March” on Washington, and the contrast between white men and enslaved Africans. These of course are the most obvious historical references, but there are others.

Indeed, the captives’ passivity cannot but remind one of other people that were captured and enslaved, tortured and slaughtered over the centuries.  Here, the Formicas’ passive acceptance of their fate immediately calls to mind the passivity of oblivious Jews paraded to the gas chambers.

But beside the obvious parallel reflection on certain historical events, the novel is sprinkled with literary and classical references – such as the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, or the biblical tragedy of Cain and Abel, to mention just a couple (in Marcus and the Amazons, however, the hero frees his loved one from death, and the two brothers reconcile).

The book follows the tradition of great children literature. An obvious example would be Luc Besson’s Arthur et les Minimoys (Arthur and the Invisibles). In Besson’s just as in Philp’s story we find a peaceful people dominated by brutes. On the one hand the Minimoys are crushed by frivolous humans while on the other they are oppressed by the brute force of their archenemy.

We may notice other literary intertextual connections with animated films like Antz and A Bug’s Life, but the quest for freedom in Philp’s book is based on far more solid moral ethics, and victory is achieved just because of these superior values – rather than due to a superior maverick’s ingenuity.

 The themes explored here are themes accessible to children yet of universal importance.  It is indeed surprising how so many themes can be packed into such a slim book and with such effective results.
Marcus teaches something completely new to both the Formicas and the Amazons: that violence does not pay; that appearances can be misleading; that not complying with the mainstream line of thinking can sometimes be the winning choice; that friendship and trust can lead to bridging  the differences among different peoples; and that pride can become our worst enemy.

Reality and fantasy are mixed, while questions are posed about who we are, where we belong and from where our roots draw the vital sap and feed our minds. The answer is not always simple, but Philp subtly presents the question leaving us to figure it out for ourselves.

About Michela A. Calderaro

Michela A. Calderaro, an Associate Editor of Calabash. A Journal of Caribbean Arts and Letters, now published on line, teaches English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Trieste (Italy). Ms Calderaro, whose critical works include a book on Ford Madox Ford and numerous articles on British and Caribbean writers, has just finished editing a collection of unpublished poems by Creole writer Eliot Bliss and plans to complete Bliss’s biography by the end of 2012.


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