This is a late book, distilled and relaxed, set in a late age. Greece is becoming a province of the Roman empire, the Olympian gods are fading, the roof of the temple leaks. There are flickers of satire, sparked by the odd anachronism: are we watching the end of the old world, with the Romans as brutish Yanks? Is Home Rule for Hellas a romantic delusion? Arieka is sent to Delphi to relieve her father's purse: she's too plain and willful to marry, and episodes from her childhood suggest strange powers. The high priest Ionides is a cultured, charming PR man who sees her role as political - "Think of yourself as a soldier" - and runs a sophisticated intelligence service by pigeon post to help him rig the oracle's pronouncements. But Arieka is not ready to give up on the gods: she feels instead that they have abandoned her.
Narrated retrospectively by Arieka, the novel unfolds as a kind of dialogue between her and Ionides. She is careful, serious, impaled on the dilemma of belief. He is mercurial and atheistic, fundraising furiously, urging her to learn to speak hexameters for mystery and punch. Voice and conversation move the story forward so that it approaches the rhythm of a play; it is shadowed by Euripides's Ion, an ironic drama about a woman raped by Apollo who finds her lost son as the god's temple servant. Arieka watches Ion at Delphi, identifying with the queen: "No man understands what rape is ... How shall I make it plain? He tore her. He tore my entrails and bloodied my mouth. Hysterical women."
Still she doubts her experience in the sanctuary: is it possession or pathology? Her anxiety is vivid, though at times she seems an irritating cliche of a woman, muddled, kind, too prone to intuitions.
Golding's nervousness at writing as a girl sometimes makes his imagination overzealous: his account of Arieka's menarche while watching a donkey with an erection is pure male fantasy. But as she grows into the novel's philosophical dilemmas, her voice steadies. After all, she reasons, "there had always been the suspect and doubtful about the oracle even in the earliest recorded days". If Apollo was the god of poetry, how come his hexameters aren't as good as Homer's?
The mystery is never solved, leaving us suspended between insight and frustration. Perhaps if Golding had lived to complete his third draft he would have tightened the threads binding his double tongue as ventriloquist- author to that of the Pythia. Is he god or PR man? Is there a difference? In the end, what counts is how we go about not knowing. Ionides shows how cynicism issues from powerlessness; Arieka's state of doubt never resolves into irony. She loves him though he shocks her, and the tension between them turns out to be essential to the oracle. When he dies of shame after the Romans crack his conspiracy Delphi falls silent, and Arieka finally opens the forbidden doors to the sanctum to find nothing but bare rock. She accepts the void, "feeling strangely that there was a kind of tenderness in it that I could explain to nobody." That tenderness, unusual in Golding, is the book's best discovery.