Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part II


Last week I talked about my initial reluctance to write about Thermopylae and the reasons for it. Today I want to focus on one particular aspect: the literary challenge.

The way I see it, if I were writing about Henry V of England, the historical record might be my guide, but Shakespeare would be my competition. And nothing about the real Battle of Agincourt would be so challenging as Shakespeare’s magnificent depiction of it. Never mind that the words he put into Henry’s mouth were never said by him – indeed, were probably based on the speech Edward of Woodstock made before Poitiers as recorded by Chandos’ Herald.  Shakespeare is the benchmark for any book of fiction about Henry V. Fortunately, I’m not writing about Henry V!

Thermopylae too appears in a number of works of fiction, and these have shaped our understanding of it and laid down the literary hurdles that any new book on the subject must successfully clear. I was personally introduced to Thermopylae – and indeed Ancient Sparta – by Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The Spartan. I read this book as a teenager, and it impressed me so much that I retained a life-long, if initially latent, interest in Sparta. I remembered it as a book about Thermopylae. But when I purchased and read it in preparation for my own description, I discovered that of the two hundred pages, only thirty-five were devoted to the battle, of which ten were the march north. Even the remaining twenty-five pages shy away from the issue in that they describe the fate of Aristodemos, the hero of the novel, and one of the two Spartiates that survived Thermopylae. Aristodemos, Herodotus tells us, was blind and behind the lines and did not actually fight, at least not on the last day. Snedeker’s account skirts around Thermopylae more than it describes it.

The opposite is true of Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire.  Pressfield’s book starts and ends at Thermopylae and everything in between is more or less a device for making us identify with and understand what happened there. Rather like Shakespeare, Pressfield is a better story-teller than historian. It was reading Gates of Fire that reawakened the latent interest in Sparta that Snedeker had sparked in me decades earlier. After reading Gates of Fire, I started doing research on ancient Sparta, and, being a historian, I read history books. My research slowly and painstakingly produced a vision of Sparta markedly different from Pressfield’s. Yet his story-telling is compelling, as the success of his novel proves. Pressfield is therefore the modern bench-mark for any fictional account of Thermopylae.

Before attempting my own account, therefore, I re-read Gates of Fire. The issue was not if or how historically accurate his account was, but rather how did he deploy his characters and evoke emotion? How effective was his story-telling? Was there any point in going “toe-to-toe” with an internationally best-selling author? Or should I, like Snedeker, find a way to evade the issue? Most important, was there anything that I could say about Thermopylae that hadn’t already been said?

Astonishingly, when I re-read Gates of Fire, I came away feeling that Pressfield had done a magnificent job of describing male bonding on the battlefield and that his Thermopylae was very much about blood and guts and heroes. It uses the language of modern fighting men. It speaks to modern fighting men. It is a tribute to fighting men of all nations and ages.

But is that all that Thermopylae was and is?

Pressfield’s heroes are already crippled by the end of the first day of fighting, yet continue to perform super-human deeds of strength and endurance, heedless of pain and physics for another two days. Pressfields heroes are demi-gods – like Achilles and Hektor and Ajax.

But Leonidas was a real human being, a historical, not a mythical figure. So were the other 300 Spartans, 700 Thespeians and 400 Thebans. They all had real names, real (not divine) parents, and they felt real pain; they had only the strength of mortal men. Shouldn’t we honor them for what they were, rather than turn them into supermen?

Many people want supermen, cartoon figures and supernatural heroes. For them, there are lots of “Leonidases” on the market – films, cartoons and PC-games.

But it seems to me there are too few portrayals of Leonidas as a complex, human being, and this I realized could be my contribution to the portrayals of Thermopylae. My Thermopylae, I decided, would be about human beings doing exceptional but not super-human things.  And so, at last, I sat down and wrote about Thermopylae.

3 comments:

MasterGunner said...

I'm surprised (and pleased) at your mention of Gates of Fire. Pressfield, being himself a Marine, has a talent for describing the grittiness of combat. One of his lesser-known works is The Warrior Ethos, a relatively recent collection of essays he released. When I became a Platoon Sergeant, I bought many copies of both for the Soldiers in my platoon before we went to Afghanistan.

There are more than enough works out there that paint battlefields with a broad brush. Written from a historian's point of view, they dazzle with diagrams of terrain, icons describing the positions of adversaries, and yet completely dehumanize the cost of doing battle. When entire platoons or companies are lost to either machine gun fire or volleys of arrows "that blot out the sun", they treat the loss of combat power as a simple reduction in numbers, nothing else.

As a combat veteran, I can tell you that true warfare is horrific. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true. The most compelling accounts of men locked in combat with other men are descriptions of operations at the ground level. Pressfield describes the last few hours of the battle, when Spartans were still fighting while holding in their guts. Spears and hoplons were broken, swords had been shattered, and the last of the Greeks fought "with fists and teeth".

In my opinion, it's descriptions like these, that even though fiction based in history, that make the story real to the reader. Humanizing the Spartans, looking at the horror of war through their eyes, makes works like Gates of Fire so important. The emotions that are stirred up by reading Gates makes the reader coming back to read it a second, third, fourth time.

I disagree with you on one point, though. While the Spartans were indeed exhausted and battered after the first day, I can tell you that desperate situations often lead men to superhuman feats. They had no choice but to give everything they had. Each man knew he would die, so what did they have to lose? They had superior weapons, armor, training, and motivation. What they didn't have was numbers. So they did what they could. In the simplest terms, they killed as many of the enemy as they could, until they themselves lay dead. Stripped down to its basest form... that's what war is to the Infantryman in 480 BC or the 21st Century... Kill the other guy before he can kill you, and hope that in the grand scheme of things, it makes a difference.

Which brings me to the Leonidas Trilogy: I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two books. I am looking forward to the third (Kindle, please). What makes them so interesting to me, is that your treatment of such an important figure in history: you humanize him. Leonidas is no longer a picture on a vase, or a story in an ancient history book... he's a man that was a boy who struggled with many of the same things that all little boys do as they grow up. Your trilogy, to me, is just as important as Gates of Fire. They are the only two works (so far) that put me in Ancient Greece, and allow me to experience the era in a very personal way.

MasterGunner said...

I'm surprised (and pleased) at your mention of Gates of Fire. Pressfield, being himself a Marine, has a talent for describing the grittiness of combat. One of his lesser-known works is The Warrior Ethos, a relatively recent collection of essays he released. When I became a Platoon Sergeant, I bought many copies of both for the Soldiers in my platoon before we went to Afghanistan.

There are more than enough works out there that paint battlefields with a broad brush. Written from a historian's point of view, they dazzle with diagrams of terrain, icons describing the positions of adversaries, and yet completely dehumanize the cost of doing battle. When entire platoons or companies are lost to either machine gun fire or volleys of arrows "that blot out the sun", they treat the loss of combat power as a simple reduction in numbers, nothing else.

As a combat veteran, I can tell you that true warfare is horrific. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true. The most compelling accounts of men locked in combat with other men are descriptions of operations at the ground level. Pressfield describes the last few hours of the battle, when Spartans were still fighting while holding in their guts. Spears and hoplons were broken, swords had been shattered, and the last of the Greeks fought "with fists and teeth".

In my opinion, it's descriptions like these, that even though fiction based in history, that make the story real to the reader. Humanizing the Spartans, looking at the horror of war through their eyes, makes works like Gates of Fire so important. The emotions that are stirred up by reading Gates makes the reader coming back to read it a second, third, fourth time.

I disagree with you on one point, though. While the Spartans were indeed exhausted and battered after the first day, I can tell you that desperate situations often lead men to superhuman feats. They had no choice but to give everything they had. Each man knew he would die, so what did they have to lose? They had superior weapons, armor, training, and motivation. What they didn't have was numbers. So they did what they could. In the simplest terms, they killed as many of the enemy as they could, until they themselves lay dead. Stripped down to its basest form... that's what war is to the Infantryman in 480 BC or the 21st Century... Kill the other guy before he can kill you, and hope that in the grand scheme of things, it makes a difference.

Which brings me to the Leonidas Trilogy: I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two books. I am looking forward to the third (Kindle, please). What makes them so interesting to me, is that your treatment of such an important figure in history: you humanize him. Leonidas is no longer a picture on a vase, or a story in an ancient history book... he's a man that was a boy who struggled with many of the same things that all little boys do as they grow up. Your trilogy, to me, is just as important as Gates of Fire. They are the only two works (so far) that put me in Ancient Greece, and allow me to experience the era in a very personal way.

Helena said...

Thank you for your insights! I hope the third book in the trilogy will not disappoint you. (Yes, it will be released in Kindle as well as trade paperback.) I look forward to your commentary on it and on future entries to this blog.