Wednesday, November 19, 2008


When done well, such as in Shaara's The Killer Angels or Graves' I, Claudius, historical fiction can inspire, entertain, and teach. Granted, there is a pit in my stomach when an author puts words in the mouths of historical figures, but the end result cannot be that much different than what professional historians sometimes do with the facts. And when the story involves the heroic stand of men against enormous odds and with little to expect but death, such as at the Alamo, then the story can be so much more riveting. I must have developed an interest in this type of story when I was a wee lad, enjoying volumes such a We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo, and later stories of Custer and other engagements where everyone or nearly everyone is killed. Yes, I am morbid. I would put Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae in this catagory. The general outline is fairly well known to any student who has even had a smattering of ancient or Western history. I studies ancient history as an undergraduate, so I also am predisposed to liking it as well.

Pressfield lets the story of Greece and it's heroic stand against the massive invading armies of the Persian king Xerxes be told by a mortally wounded, ex-helot weapon-bearer and aide to a Spartan officer. He is the sole survivor of the final assault and has been pressed into service as storyteller for the Persian king. Xeo tells of his roots, how his family is massacred in one of the frequent intra-Hellenic wars, and after surviving in the wild with a female cousin and an old slave, he ends up going to Sparta to offer his services. His true love goes to Athens. This part of the story could have been dull and lifeless, but the author does a good job in detailing Spartan life and culture without losing the reader. Particularly interesting characters are two other non-Spartan warriors, Rooster and Suicide, who nevertheless are warriors in their own right.

Where Pressfield excels is in developing the story of the bonding and training, as well as philsophies, of Spartan soldiers. It is difficult for me to imagine such a complete immersion into martial life from the earliest age until old age, the development of human fighting machines capable of bearing enormous pain and yet dealing amazing death. I can see why this volume has apparently been a hit with American officers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not know enough about the small details of the actual battle, but as far as I am concerned I think he tells the tale well enough. I was happy to see that he allowed the heroics of soldiers from other Greek city-states to shine, as in many histories one would think only the Spartans and a handful of Thebans gave their lives. And he likewise is complimentary of the heroic actions of the Persian forces, mostly conscripted men from captured territories, who fought bravely and hard, even when they were outmatched by the superbly trained and disciplined Greek warriors. He emphasizes the respect, even for enemies, that professional soldiers seem to have when their opponents fight with heart.

My only misgiving is that the dialogue at times feels too modern, the inclusion of thoughts or even curses that probably would not have been spoken then. But it is a minor matter.

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