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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review of The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas

I recently read The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas by E.S. Kraay and thought readers of this blog might be interested in a review.

The novel is set roughly ten years after the defeat of the Greeks at Thermopylae but the main subject is the events of the summer of 480 BC and the impact they had on the two main characters. What makes this book exceptional and good reading is that it is not, except for one short chapter, the retelling of the familiar story of blood and gore and courage, but rather the story of a Thasian athlete seen through the eyes of others who knew him. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of the poet Simonides of Cos.

In Delphi, Simonides chances upon a party of men from Thasos, who have sought the advice of the Oracle about how to end a drought oppressing their island. Simonides, after hearing the oracle delivered to them, believes he can interpret it for them. He explains that it concerns righting wrongs done to a certain Thrasian athlete, Theagenes, who competed at the Olympic games in 480. He promises to explain himself by telling the story of Theagenes as the party makes its way back to Thasos.

The book moves at the gentle pace of a journey on foot and the story teller unravels his tale slowly, but as a result the voice seems all the more authentic, and at no time was I bored or tempted to leave the book unfinished. The story was, in its leisurely way, compelling. The characters took shape convincingly and their behavior is consistent and believable throughout. Particularly well drawn is the first-person narrator, Simonides himself. In fact, the use of the aging poet as narrator is one of the most engaging features of this novel. It is refreshing to have an aging, unattractive poet rather than an exceedingly handsome hoplite telling a story about, eventually, Thermopylae. The use of Simonides as story-teller also enables the book to be more reflective in tone, while adding wonderful authenticity through homilies and judgments that would seem out of place of another narrator or if this character were not so well-drawn.

Kraay’s historical research must have been first class also. He adds brilliant touches like allowing Simonides to quote Hesiod in appropriate ways and places. I also liked his use of small details – the food eaten, the scars left on boxers – to give the entire book texture and color. Most impressive, his description of Greek society rang true in a way rare in modern literature. Kraay manages to depict a society in which the array of different Gods were revered and omens taken seriously without making either seem ridiculous. His treatment of the Spartans is devoid of the usual hyperboles about mindless, uneducated brutes, although a shade stereotypic nevertheless. While I find it hard to believe Sparta would not call all her athletes back to Sparta when the decision was taken that one of her kings should set off for Thermopylae, I have no evidence to prove it and accept Kraay version as a legitimate interpretation.

The only part of the book that truly taxed my imagination was the way in which Simonides witnessed the Battle of Thermopylae, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise very good book. I recommend The Olympian to anyone, who likes reading about ancient Greece.

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