Writing A Novel About Your Childhood Hero
Hannibal of Carthage is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. He’s mostly known for his daring invasion of Italy — crossing the snow-covered Alps with an army of 40,000 men and all those African elephants — a risky effort that almost brought mighty Rome to its knees.
He also was a companion of my adolescent year, a person I idealized because of his real-life courage, audacity, and military brilliance.
Let’s do the roll call of Hannibal’s military genius. At age 25, he carried out a seemingly impossible invasion plan, then defeated several well-trained and experienced Roman armies on their own soil. At the signature battle of Cannae, Hannibal defeated a Roman army twice the size of his own. Over sixteen years fighting in Italy, he never suffered a significant defeat.
There was a part of Hannibal’s story — a brilliant outsider who could wreak revenge upon his oppressors — that appealed to my Jewish experience of growing up post WW 2 in an antisemitic suburb of NYC. Fantasies about a powerful redeemer who will defeat one’s oppressors are not uncommon among people who feel like the Other.
Hannibal was also a favorite of Sigmund Freud, whose childhood took place in anti-Semitic Austria. As a young boy, Freud witnessed his father’s humiliation on the street at the hands of several anti-Semites and later wrote that he “contrasted this situation with another which befitted my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had a place in my fantasies.” Freud claimed Hannibal to be his “favorite hero” during adolescence.
Fast forward from my long- ago adolescence to today. My novel The Wolf Boy has just been published. And my childhood hero, Hannibal, is a central character. The Wolf Boy is a coming-of-age story in a time of war, a psychological portrait of a young man’s journey to find himself, seen from the perspective both of Hannibal himself and his young servant, an orphaned boy named Nahatum, captured while trying to steal food from the army.
In the course of writing the novel, my understanding of Hannibal deepened, and so, too, did my ambivalence toward him. In wrestling with who Hannibal was, I came to understand more about my own uneasy fascination with warfare and traditional male heroism (and by this I mean everything from the simulated war of the NFL to military valor on the real battlefield.)
As I came to know my other protagonist, young Nahatum (the wolf boy of the book’s title), his perception of Hannibal changed as well. At first terrified, he came to love this man who saved his life, even gave him a life.
Yet as the boy learned to read and write under the instruction of Hannibal’s elderly scribe, he came to know more about the world beyond the warfare all around him. This changed everything. Over time, Nahatum questioned the violence that his master was unleashing against Rome, as Hannibal’s military brilliance resulted in a series of unbelievable military victories against an enemy who seemed to have all the advantages.
Nahatum’s conflict between loyalty to the man he loved and the wish for his own identity became a central part of the narrative. However, it wasn’t always a part of the story. When I began writing the novel years earlier, I was as enthralled by Hannibal as my young protagonist, Nahatum, and the story suffered from my idealization of this man. The plot was driven — well, actually there wasn’t much of a driver amidst all that idealizing — by the story of Hannibal’s epic victories. The early drafts were hagiography dressed up as fiction.
So, I put the whole project aside for several years. When I returned to writing The Wolf Boy, I plunged deeper into the inner lives of my two protagonists, the brilliant general without a son and the clever young boy without a father.
Hannibal’s struggles became clearer: a warrior who spent over a decade in unforgiving combat away from his home and family, a man who conquers the world but loses touch with his own son. He became more of a tragic figure to me and my military fascination deepened into an awareness of the costs of the naïve worship of famous battles and generals. The human story of combat, as any veteran can tell us, is not one of glory but of pain and sacrifice.
In a way, I was writing those early drafts of The Wolf Boy from one side of my own ambivalence about manhood: the tough- guy, gut-it-out version. There’s another side, likely of all of us, that has to do with the wish to be more nurturing and reflective, to be a generative father and raise a family.
As I have aged, become a father, watched my parents die, and come to understand more about the fragility of life, of civilization itself in these days, the urgency of valuing and protecting what we most cherish has become stronger, even as part of me still wishes to feel the heat of combat, of victory, of being the one who conquers rather than is conquered. I am one of those people who watches the Super Bowl and wonders why I am doing so. Yet I don’t turn off the TV despite my disdain for football’s violence and the NFL’s treatment of its player.
As successive drafts of The Wolf Boy emerged, Nahatum’s view of Hannibal also began to shift. Yes, he loved and idealized this man, but as he was exposed repeatedly to the reality of war, the horror of combat (at which he excelled, since he was a figment of my imagination), Nahatum began to have a different view of the man he loved. And he began to question himself.
Nahatum wrestled with the kind of man he wanted to be: a conqueror or a nurturer? A warrior or a man of the word, of books? In the course of the novel, Nahatum learns a crucial lesson: that books are one of the few ways of preserving what we most value and love. From this grows a yearning for something he’d never known — the stability of a family, of love, not the catastrophe of war.
Nahatum resolved this crisis through a dramatic choice he made at the time of Hannibal’s greatest victory and the novel came to a, hopefully, satisfying conclusion for the reader.
And, what of the author? What did he take from this decade-long process of writing historical fiction that came to embody his own conflicts?
As I worked through successive drafts, not only my sense of Hannibal changed but so too did my interest in the details of his life. I became less enamored with his famous successes on the battlefield and more appreciative of his less-well-known successes after his eventual defeat.
The story of Hannibal often ends with his “failure,” since Carthage lost the war. He was never able to force Rome’s surrender. Instead, Carthage hurriedly recalled Hannibal from Italy to defend the city from the invading Romans. His army — hastily raised and untrained — was routed and Carthage was forced to accept an onerous peace treaty.
Often accounts of his life stop there, as if defeat ends people’s interest in character.
Yet what stands out most about the Hannibal story now for me is the remarkable resilience that the man displayed as fates conspired to undermine his lifelong hopes of personal victory.
After his defeat, Hannibal returned to Carthage and became a political leader, helping his city to rebuild. His later years were spent rallying opposition to Roman expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. Hannibal was truly formidable in his ability to persevere and recreate himself through his long life.
As I live through my seventies, the image of Hannibal in the winter of his years, battling on, is still a sort of companion, just as the image of Hannibal the intrepid warrior conquering mountains and Roman armies was the companion of my adolescence.
Only now, it is not Hannibal the indomitable warrior who inspires me, but Hannibal the ever- resilient man, able to weather failure and find renewal, to be reborn again and again out of the hopes and dreams of the past.
The Hannibal I know now is a very different man than the Hannibal I knew as an adolescent. Somehow, we have both grown up.
An author creates a protagonist; the protagonist creates the author. A two- way Pygmalion.
There’s probably a novel in that.