Author: Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha (translation and introduction by Carl Skoggard)
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
As the brilliant translator Carl Skoggard explains in the Introduction, Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha was a remarkable, eccentric person who did not abide by traditional gender norms. To learn more about the duke, I recommend reading Skoggard’s introduction. According to Skoggard, the character of Alethophone, a prophetess, is really a representation of the duke in drag.
What is the plot of this book?
As the title suggests, the story takes place in Arcadia, the region of Greece, in the country’s ancient glory days. In this idyllic and pastoral setting, young shepherds and shepherdesses pursue love with great success. The book is a series of interwoven episodes about love among shepherds and shepherdesses in ancient Arcadia. Nevertheless, the queer love story stands out, while the other stories falter. Beautiful Julanthiskos pines for the gorgeous Alexis. The two young men flirt with each other, but nothing initially results from this flirtation.
Julanthiskos is smitten with Alexis, but Alexis is coy. Julanthiskos becomes heartbroken when he believes that Alexis spurns him. At this time of crisis, the prophetess Alethophone makes a grand entrance and divines the futures of the young shepherds, including Julanthiskos. Although her prophecy is vague, she advises Julanthiskos to have faith that his love will come to fruition.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading at this point if you do not wish to know what happens at the end of the book.
Alexis becomes trapped on a cliff after he loses his companions in the rough terrain of the mountains. After slaying a beast on the cliff, Alexis is injured and in great peril. Meanwhile, Julanthiskos sacrifices his necklace to the god Hermes, and Hermes in return leads him to the cliff where Alexis is trapped. Julanthiskos effortlessly traverses the rough terrain and miraculously leaps over a chasm to rescue Alexis. Julanthiskos’s steadfast commitment to Alexis wins him over: “You softened my heart through faithfulness.”
How is this book queer?
This book was the first novel (in its modern form) to include an explicitly queer male love story. Ancient narratives like Satyricon addressed male same-sex desire, but these stories are problematic because they portray queer encounters that involve teenage boys in positions of slavery. In addition, numerous works such as The Tale of Genji and Father Goriot only suggest or obliquely mention in passing that a male character may have same-sex desires. By contrast, Year in Arcadia is refreshingly and unmistakably queer.
The two main characters are romantic men indeed. Despite the author’s repeated focus on the great physical beauty of both Julanthiskos and Alexis, the commitment of the former and the vulnerability of the latter stand out as their greatest strengths.
Indeed, the loyalty of Julanthiskos is clear throughout the narrative, especially in contrast to the infidelity of his brother Barys. Serving as a symbol of male heterosexuality, Barys drinks a lot, he parties, and he makes love to a lot of women. He likes to hunt. We get it. He is the typical “manly” man. In fact, the other female characters remark on the difference between Barys and Julanthiskos. When one female character shows frustration with the infidelity of men, another female character interjects that not all men are this way. In fact, Julanthiskos is extremely committed and reliable.
Equating fidelity with sexual orientation is not fair or accurate. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the main queer character and the jocular critique of the straight male character do not dominate the narrative. Although Barys may not be completely loyal to women, he is not a homophobe. He shows concern when his brother is heartbroken over Alexis, for example. The reader has clearly entered a world where everyone, including the virile heterosexual character, accepts and supports love between men.
It is easy to support love between men when the queer men are gorgeous. The author emphasizes the physical beauty of Julanthiskos and Alexis, largely through their admirers. For example, a female character dreams about Julanthiskos being naked. The female characters fawn over both Julanthiskos and Alexis. Perhaps the author chooses these female reactions to demonstrate that these two men are clearly queer and lack interest in women who throw themselves at them. The words and actions of these women frequently made one want to groan. Nevertheless, these men are not portrayed as campy, simplistic cartoons, as has been the tendency in media portrayals for a long time. These queer men are raw, passionate, and beautiful.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are interested in ancient Greece and queer male romance, this book is for you. Although the narrative was not thrilling, this is a sweet, simple book to enjoy in an afternoon. Most impressive is the duke’s unabashed portrayal of queer male love in a time when other authors only suggested that their characters were queer.
von Sachsen-Gotha, August. Year in Arcadia: A Shepherd’s Calendar. Translated by Carl Skoggard, Tropen Verlag, 1999.