Saturday, November 04, 2006

Going Greek I: Review of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

A friend of mine, the one who could afford it, read Gates of Fire and it inspired him to visit Greece. A fellow blogger, about the best slinger of invective I know, lumped the genre as Sparta without the queer. And they're both right. The stand at Thermopylae is about as gripping as military history gets. It's a battle in which men stood up against a vastly superior enemy by sheer force of will and discipline and brains, and defended their continent at the expense of absolutely everything. On the other hand, you get the feeling that Pressfield is cherry-picking his history for twentieth century (© 1998) notions of nobility, using a twentieth century moral calculus. Which calculus is still pretty sketchy. Was Sparta right to coerce her neighboring city-states into alliance against the Persian threat? It seems to leave aside a lot of nagging moral question, and Pressfield, somewhat lazily, lets the circumstances justify his ethics. (In his less-good sequel Tides of War, the rights and wrongs are presented with a double helping of ambiguity. There was a lot less nobility to be found in the Peloponnesian War I guess.) In the present-day war environment, it feels a bit irresponsible to rush to embrace all that pathos, but what the hell, I enjoy watching football too.

When I settle into a story like this, the first thing the author must do is charm my tin ear for anachronism. That's not usually hard, but Pressfield plays it close. As mentioned above, half the book is neck-deep in the Spartan agoge and the narrator relates no hint of homosexuality. (Maybe he wouldn't have bothered? The modern taboos are what make me notice the absence.) Some really modern concepts sneak in too (trajectory equations, central nervous systems), but these are rare enough to be written off as mistakes. He confidently throws around enough steel to make me suspect everything I thought I knew about metallurgical history.

On the other hand, he offers up a good translation kludge to cover many of his inconsistencies, which is something I always appreciate. The narrator's story is ostensibly being interpreted for the Persian king in the final weeks of the invasion, and he (the teller) convincingly stumbles on words and concepts that lack a direct translation, which is a convenient way to communicate Classical ideas to the modern English reader. It also allows for some wiggle room for the language, so even though everyone knows that knights and squires are medeival creatures, it's a good shorthand for the relationsip between the Spartan Peers and their proteges. But translating context like this has its pitfalls, and Pressfield manages to drop a few bombs as well. Pikes and especially lances connote medieval cavalry (or anti-cavalry) tactics and are not good synonyms for spears. It fails as a comparison because we're already comfortable with what "spears" are. And while I'm sure you can repair any fabric this way, nicknaming weapons "darning needles" conjures up images of a socks-and-sandals fashion 2500 years before it hit the boomers.

The battle at Thermopylae is a story that tells itself almost in a sentence. Pressfield fills up four hundred pages with characters that will find their nobility on the battlefield as they face slaughter back-to-back. You've read it before: the defective kids make good, the noble captains die with dignity, the assholes find compassion and respect. It's compelling enough, but it seems to be missing a little something. Is it too reverent? The prose a little too purple? The story too standard? The narrator is driven by a vision of Apollo--I wish a little more had been made of that. Give me something beyond the drama. Drop in some nugget to churn up my thought juices just a bit little more.

Gates of Fire came close to pleasing me, but in the end, the hordes of negativity broke though the pass. I respect the effort.


(I've meant to keep a Greek theme, but I just got Soldier of Sidon in from Amazon, and it looks like Wolfe has taken a detour from Herodotus to meander up the Egyptian Nile. It'll have to do.)


LentenStuffe said...


A good review. I'm always wary of those who couch their preaching in histrionics. I find it about as emetical as watching those Disney animations about Sinbad or Hercules or Atlantis, where all the characters jabber on like assholes who should have the shit kicked outta them, you know the type, dysfunctional little pricks who aspire to heroism, because the kids need a healthy diet of heroism. I only watch them because the kids force me to!

So now I know about Pressfield. He has been recommended to me, but I always balked at the contemporary moral inside the ancient shell sort of thing. Why doesn't he simply write State of the Union speeches, or stump speeches for Al Gore? Why doesn't he become a motivational speaker?

Anyway, speaking of the moral calculus of war, do you know William T. Vollman's Rising Up, Rising Down, a six volume colossus on the subject? Apparently, it's amazing. I haven't read it, though I have read his fiction.

If we only had a little more Spartan in us, the War on Terror would be a cinch, eh?



Keifus said...

Hi John, thanks for reading.

I don't know if was quite that histrionic, but sure, you get a lot of warrior-worship in it, and a lot of the great momentousness of history, blah blah blah. I don't think Pressfield was so much trying to make a moral points, as he was taking the easier path to being compelling. (Call it the Remember the Titans of military history, but at least the moral isn't "friends are important" or some such similarly tired crap.) He got me into the times and into the characters somewhat, but (1) a little short of enough, and (2) he left too many handles to hang my doubts off of.

I'm hardly a historian (six-volume colossi scare the crap out of me), but all that military (and martial mindset) built up on the made for a pretty miserable few decades once the Persians hiked.

And Sparta eventually passed too. But yeah, that discipline was something else in its time.

K (I'm checking out for the night. Saw you have much new on your site, will try and give it a look-see on Monday.)

twiffer said...

modern moral in an ancient shell seems the inverse of sci-fi. me, i don't really need sparta to stir the desire to visit greece. the geologic complexity and arheological interest are enough. plus, i like olives and feta.

was watching a show on greece on the science channel last night, and it sparked this thought (cavet, i was a bit stoned): imperial cultures seem like they stagnate at their peak. technologically speaking, and from a perspective of innovation. granted, this is likely colored by ethnocentrism, but it seems like we don't hear of, nor expect, innovation from the great civilizations of antiquity. the greeks, the romans, the turks, the egyptians: all seem bereft of their formerly glory as the pinnicale of technology. the exception would be china, which i expect to be the next force in cultural dominance. them or the japanese (who already influence us a great deal, but that seems a two way street). what will we be stuck at, i wonder?

anacronisms bug me too. i have a taste for medieval murder mysteries, and cringe when i see descriptions using, for instance, meters. sure, it's not in the dialogue, but it shouldn't even be in the character's mind.

Keifus said...

With respect to units, you can gain some leeway calling it a translation, so long as it's clear (or easily inferred) that is. But still you want to be careful, because you don't want to imply that ancient measures were standardized. Why use meters when something like "paces" is appropriately qualitative, and imparts the context better? (You remind me that Pressfield committed the doubly unforgivable sin of using meters and feet in his ancient story.)

Are you implying that sci-fi is modern moral in a futuristic shell? Seems more accurate than futuristic morals, although good authors will extrapolate from modern fringes.

I dig your innovation idea. Kind of as a parallel, I was thinking reading this book how static and long-lived ancient cultures were. (Of course they were not static, but their permanence seems much greater than ours once you start actually counting centuries.) One thought is that conquest either requires innovation (efficient means are develop to quell the subjects or face the opponents), that the economy of innovation is enabled by the conquest of foreign capital (and yes that suggests a development bubble, and yes the comparison with the petroleum economy is frightening).