Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- Chapter 1, Scene 4

Cleombrotus was Leonidas’ twin brother. The news that Leonidas had killed a wild boar reached him in his tent, where he was dicing with his seven mess-mates. Hearing that Leonidas had broken an arm in the encounter, Cleombrotus snorted and remarked contemptuously, “Lucky someone was around to rescue him from worse harm!”

When they were little, Cleombrotus had been significantly bigger and stronger than Leonidas and had used both advantages to bully his brother. In the agoge they had been separated and rarely met; but Cleombrotus continued to excel, particularly at boxing, eventually winning in the youth competitions at Olympia. He had won the honors at the Feast of Artemis Orthia as well, and he carried that title and trophy for life. Throughout these early years he had looked down on his smaller twin, sneering at him for failing to be elected herd leader and for failing to win honors or Olympic laurels. But last year everything had turned upside down and bitter, when both youths were twenty-year-old instructors at the agoge, called eirenes. Cleombrotus lost his command after a case of unprecedented insubordination by his unit, resulting in it being turned over to his twin brother.

“That’s not what Alkander is saying,” noted the man who had brought Brotus the news.

“Alkander? That trembler! He p-p-probably shit at the sight of the b-b-boar and didn’t notice what was g-g-going on.” Cleombrotus imitated the stutter that Alkander had had as a boy, to the amusement of his companions.

When they stopped laughing, however, the messenger put him right. “You’d better come see the carcass first, Brotus. It’s huge! It took four men to carry it, and the tusks are at least two feet long. Alkander held it down with his spear while Leonidas stabbed it with his sword. They weren’t hunting and didn’t have a proper boar spear with teeth—just their standard-issue war spears, which were still in it when Demaratus got there.”

“Demaratus? What the hell was Leonidas doing hunting with the Eurypontids?” Cleombrotus made it sound like treason.

No one bothered to answer, because everyone knew that Leonidas and Alkander had been friends since boyhood, long before Alkander’s sister married Demaratus. “Come and see for yourself,” Brotus’ comrade suggested sensibly, and they all scrambled out of the tent to take a look.

Torches were forbidden in a Spartan camp, no less than in the city of Sparta, but they didn’t have much trouble finding the source of commotion. It was, after all, not yet late, and most men had not gone to sleep. The arrival of Demaratus with this immense trophy had brought many men out of their tents, and word had rapidly spread that Leonidas had killed it.

Despite himself, Cleombrotus was impressed. The boar was the largest specimen he had ever seen. Nor could he comfort himself that the beast was old, decrepit, or lame. Not a hair was gray, and there was not one other injury on its body besides the ones sticky with fresh blood. The boar was muscular, with bristling black hair and eyes that—even in death—were full of power and contempt for lesser creatures. How could Little Leo have vanquished such a beast? For the first time in his life, it occurred to Brotus that Leonidas might have qualities he had failed to notice up to now. Leonidas, he registered, might be more than he appeared to be.

 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- Chapter 1, Scene 3

King Cleomenes was happy that Demaratus had accepted the invitation to dine with the Corinthian polemarch. As a result, he was the only king present in the royal mess. This gave him undivided precedence in everything, and enabled him to dictate what wine was poured and in what proportion it was mixed with water, to choose what songs (if any) were sung, and to dominate the conversation.

Cleomenes was thirty-three. Like his co-monarch, he was not a handsome man, though it was harder to say why. Cleomenes was tall, with no obvious blemish, and yet neither his features nor his limbs seemed to fit together gracefully. His forehead was too high, his chin too short, his shoulders too narrow, and his arms too long. He had huge knees over weak calves. But the worst of his features was the way his eyes wandered, never settling on anything for long and rarely looking another man in the eye—as if he wanted to avoid the disapproval, shock, or anger he so often saw reflected back at him in the faces of others.

Tonight was no exception. He either did not notice, or did not care, that the faces of the men around him were grim or disapproving as he drank more and more. Before too long the others had ceased drinking altogether, and shortly thereafter the five regimental commanders, the lochagoi, excused themselves one after the other.

This left only two priests. Yet even as Cleomenes addressed Asteropus, the younger of the two priests, Cleomenes did not actually look at him. Instead he gazed at the tent wall over his head. “So what’s this I hear about the Corinthians having an omen foretelling Corinthian triumph?”

Asteropus had a long, acne-scarred face, and he stroked his short beard as he considered his king. Truth to tell, he did not like Cleomenes. He thought the king impious, arrogant, and excessively temperamental—although there was no doubt about his raw intelligence or his high level of education. Cleomenes could cut through superfluous discourse like a knife through butter, and he hated illogical argument. Asteropus had learned to admire that, because he was an ambitious young man and Cleomenes had offered him a rare opportunity—to be the Agiad representative to Delphi.

Asteropus had snatched at the opportunity not only because it was a fascinating job, but because he had not had many successes in his short life. He had been one of those boys and youths who, no matter how hard he tried, inevitably lost at contests of strength and speed and dexterity. He was short-sighted and had spent most of his years in the agoge slogging miserably behind the leaders. It had not helped that he could not sing or dance, either, as those were skills the Spartans admired at least as much as skill at sports. Only his wits had sometimes won him praise and respect; but once he had joined the army at age twenty-one, even that no longer mattered so much. In the army, skill at arms and physical courage eclipsed all other virtues. Asteropus hated army life.

Cleomenes had rescued him from it. He had reached out his bountiful hand and appointed Asteropus his representative to Apollo, and from that day forward Asteropus was exempt from military service.

Asteropus knew he had attracted the king’s attention because, despite his mere twenty-five years of age, he had demonstrated an uncanny ability to read the omens of the Gods—as if his physical short-sightedness had been replaced with divine insight. When still in the agoge, for example, he had predicted a disastrous thunderstorm that killed five boys during the Phouxir. And just this spring he had foreseen the disaster that would strike Cleomenes’ half-brother, Dorieus. The latter in particular brought him Cleomenes’ favor, because the Agiad king hated his brother Dorieus—even more than he hated his co-regent King Demaratus.

Dorieus had been born to Cleomenes’ father, King Anaxandridas, by his first wife—but only after the ephors had made Anaxandridas take Cleomenes’ mother, Chilonis, as his second wife. Although Cleomenes had been born a year before Dorieus, Dorieus had been such a paragon of manly virtue while growing up that there had been a faction that supported his claim to the throne, saying he had precedence since he was son to the first (and implicitly only legal) wife of their father. At Anaxandridas’ death, the ephors and Council had ruled in Cleomenes’ favor and the Assembly had ratified the decision—albeit by a small (and some said dubious) majority. Outraged by the slight, Dorieus left Sparta in a rage, unwilling to accept Cleomenes as his king. He first tried to set up a colony in Africa, but was expelled by the Carthaginians. The oracle at Delphi then advised him to go to Sicily and found a city in honor of Herakles, promising him success if he did so. With only a handful of Spartiates but many perioikoi, he departed. Cleomenes had been glad to see him go; but he also feared that Dorieus, if successful abroad, might return to challenge Cleomenes at home—this time with an army at his back.

Cleomenes’ worries increased incrementally as news of Dorieus’ successes filtered back to Sparta. Dorieus appeared to be growing richer and more powerful by the month. Soon alarming news arrived: Dorieus’ Spartan colony was considered so powerful that he had been asked to assist in local wars—just as Sparta did at home. Cleomenes could picture the fleet that would land on the western shore of the Peloponnese and sweep through Messenia, rallying his subjects to revolt against him. His nightmares became so dreadful that Cleomenes consulted Sparta’s senior seer, Hekataios, but the answer was ambiguous and unsatisfying. He had then, almost as an insult to the older man, asked Hekataios’ barely mature son, Asteropus, what he thought Dorieus would do next.

In a flash of inspiration from his “second sight,” Asteropus had replied without hesitation. “You have nothing to fear from Dorieus, for he will pay for transgressing the instructions of the oracle. He will leave his body on the field of honor and be in Hades as soon as he tries to use his arms for a purpose other than that assigned him by Apollo.” Within just two months a ship from Sicily put in with the news that Dorieus was indeed dead, and Asteropus had secured the job of Cleomenes’ personal representative at Delphi.

Unfortunately, he had no flash of inspiration now. The Gods were fickle, after all, and he did not have an answer that would calm Cleomenes’ unease.

“Well?” the king prodded impatiently, reaching again for his wine. “What is all this nonsense about? Our allies share our victories and defeats. The Corinthians cannot win a victory without us. Surely they can see that?”

“Undoubtedly—if only the signs we had were not so adverse.”

“So why are they adverse?” Cleomenes demanded.

Asteropus was relieved by the arrival of a helot messenger. The man entered the tent and respectfully came to a halt before Cleomenes, his eyes down and his hands by his side.

“What is it?” Cleomenes demanded irritably.

“The surgeon sent me to inform you that your brother has been injured by a wild boar, sir.”

“Which brother?” Cleomenes wanted to know. Even with Dorieus dead, he still had two younger half brothers, likewise sons of his father’s first wife, and so from Cleomenes’ point of view untrustworthy.

“Leonidas,” the helot answered.

“Oh. Will he live?”

The helot glanced up, startled. “He has only a broken arm, sir.”

“So why the fuss?”

The helot treated the question as rhetorical, and withdrew.

“Fool!” Cleomenes commented to Asteropus with contempt. “He shouldn’t be out hunting boar if he doesn’t know how to keep out of their way.” Cleomenes reached again for his wine.

But in that moment Asteropus had one of his flashes of inspiration, and he warned Cleomenes, “Do not underestimate Leonidas. He may prove far more dangerous to you than Dorieus ever was.”

“Little Leo? Nonsense. Cleombrotus is the one to watch. He covets my throne. Leonidas is as docile as a lamb. Lambonidas would be a better name for him!” Cleomenes liked his own joke and laughed at it.

Asteropus let it go. He did not feel it was his job to contradict the king. He had done his duty by warning him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- Chapter 1, Scene 2

“Master! Master! A catastrophe!” The slave burst into the symposium, at which his master was hosting a dozen important guests. “A horrible accident!” the slave gasped out.

Archilochos’ symposia were famous for the quality of their food, entertainment, and conversation. Wealthy, well-traveled, and active in politics, Archilochos prided himself on employing the best cook and serving the most coveted wines in all Corinth, because he found both useful bait to pull men into his circle. He was, at the moment, exceedingly pleased to have snared one of the Spartan kings, Demaratus.

King Demaratus was not a handsome man. He was short and bowlegged and had a very large nose. Aware of this, he was not vain about his person, and he dressed in the practical clothes of a common ranker in the Spartan army, without any hint of his royal status. He braided his hair from the roots, as was custom, and bound the tips with tarred twine like marines did. Despite this almost defiant refusal to dress like a king, however, he was very conscious of his royal dignity and sensitive to slights to his status.

Despite the superficial differences between Demaratus and the elegant and cultured Archilochos, they found common ground in their opposition to the other Spartan king’s plans to make war on Athens. They met tonight to discuss ways of putting an end to the ill-advised adventure; and Archilochos deplored the unprecedented interruption of a slave, who had no business in the symposium for any reason.

“Stop babbling!” Archilochos snapped at the hysterical old slave.

But the slave was Lychos’ tutor, the man who had watched over him when he was growing up, and he was far too distressed to calm down. “Lychos has been gored by a wild boar. They say he was tossed around in the air, speared on the tusks of the boar, and his guts were spilling out of him!”

“Who says? What are you talking about?” Archilochos started to focus on what the man was saying.

“Master Lychos is bleeding to death! He―”

“Calm down and give me a coherent report!” Archilochos ordered, alarm rather than outraged propriety lending his voice an edge now.

Except for Demaratus, Archilochos’ guests were all Corinthian aristocrats who knew their host’s son personally; they exchanged horrified glances. Even Demaratus knew that his host had lost one son at sea, and guessed that this youth was Archilochos’ heir.

“He was riding beyond Acrocorinth when his horse shied at the sight of a boar, and he was thrown to the ground, and the boar gored him!” The slave was trying desperately to get his master to do more than stare at him in horror.

“Where is he?” Archilochos demanded.

“In the forest on the far side of Acrocorinth!”

“He’s still out there? But how did you hear of this?” Archilochos demanded, rearing up from his couch.

“A Spartan! A Spartan found him and killed the boar, but he could not bring him back. He only just managed to capture his horse and ride to Pytheas for help.”

“Pytheas?”

“Of course!” The slave was impatient with his master’s slowness. “Lychos was riding out with Chambias, and Chambias gave instructions to his own house.”

“Why didn’t he come himself?” Archilochos demanded in terrified outrage, his anger an expression of his unfathomable fear. He could not lose this son, too!

“Chambias broke his knee falling from his horse. Lychos―”

“They left him out there? Bleeding to death?” Archilochos grabbed for his himation, fumbling for his sandals.

Demaratus had never seen a grown man look so lost and helpless.

“The other Spartan and Chambias stayed with him, but we must get help to him! Master, we must get the surgeon!”

“Don’t give me orders, slave!” Archilochos snarled back, and only then remembered his guests. He turned to them, unseeing, muttered “excuse me,” and was gone, the old slave in his wake.

The other men collected their himations and slipped their feet into their sandals. The owner of the flute girls shooed them away while they chattered excitedly like a flock of chickens. Demaratus, however, took his time. While the other guests departed, he tied his own sandals and deliberately wrapped his thick red himation around him. Then he set his cross-crested helmet on the back of his head, the nosepiece on his forehead, and followed the others out.

Just as he had expected, he found his host in the outer courtyard. By now Archilochos had sent for a surgeon and ordered his horse tacked up, while a crowd of slaves collected in the courtyard carrying stretchers and torches. Demaratus moved calmly into the maelstrom of activity swirling around Archilochos.

Archilochos was in no mood for any distraction, and he scowled in annoyance at the Spartan king. “Forgive me, but this must take precedence—”

Demaratus waved him silent. “Of course. I merely wanted to reassure you. If two Spartiates were at the scene of the accident, then you can be sure they did all that could be done to save your son.”

“You don’t even know who they were! How can you be so sure? Ordinary soldiers are no surgeons!”

“Spartiates have gone through the agoge, and they are huntsmen. They know how to treat wounds caused by sword and spear, claws, teeth, and tusks, as well as how to handle other common injuries from sprains to broken bones. They will have done all that is possible for your son until a surgeon can see him.”

Archilochos was in no mood to listen, so Demaratus stepped back and let him go, but he called for his own horse. His helot attendant came forward at once, having anticipated the order and having already tacked both their horses. Demaratus swung himself easily onto the animal’s back and followed in the wake of Archilochos’ noisy party with their many torches.

They did not have far to ride. Just behind the huge Doric temple to Apollo, they stopped beside a house ablaze with torchlight. All the neighbors had lit torches, too, and slaves filled the street; the women crowded the balconies, shrouded in their shawls so that only their eyes showed.

Archilochos was met at the door by a man with long white hair and a flowing beard, who assured Archilochos that his own rescue party had set out a quarter of an hour earlier. Archilochos, however, was not calmed, and insisted on following them. Proceeding at a jogging pace along the long avenue leading out of the city to the west, they overtook the priest’s rescue party before it had passed out of the city walls.

Demaratus tagged along, unseen by the others, until he suddenly cantered past the rest of the party to the young man who was leading them. He drew up sharply, his horse’s hooves skidding on the paving stones. “Alkander! You? You killed this boar?”

“It was Leonidas who killed him. I merely pinned him down.”

They gazed at one another while the Corinthians came to a halt in confusion.

“What is this? We must hurry!” Archilochos demanded, riding up beside Demaratus.

“Indeed. And so we shall. Let me introduce my wife’s brother, Alkander.” Demaratus hesitated, but then he decided it would eventually come to light anyway. “And you need not fear that your son’s rescuers were ‘ordinary soldiers.’ The young man who killed the boar is none other than Leonidas, son of Anaxandridas and brother to King Cleomenes.”

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sparring with Ghosts: Writing Biographical Fiction

While I have been writing historical fiction all my life, I only started to focus on biographical fiction after earning my PhD with a biography of General Friedrich Olbricht. Combining the skills of a biographer were those of a novelist is an even greater challenge than combing the skills of an historian with those of a novelist. History provides a context for fictional characters, but leaves the novelist almost infinite freedom to fit their characters into the general historical framework. Biographical fiction requires a higher degree of discipline and forces a novelist to operate within a more rigid structure. The rewards of evolving an internally consistent and legitimate interpretation of a historical figure are, however, almost indescribable.

The fact is, for most historical figues information about what went on inside their hearts and minds is scarce. We might have the odd letter or two, or if very lucky a diary, but the farther back in history a person lived, the less likely we are to have authentic, first-hand material. Most of what we know about historical figures was recorded at best by contemporary chroniclers, and more often by observers who lived decades or even centuries later. Many historical records come from foreign sources – Athenians writing about Sparta, Christian monks recording the raids of the Vikings, or Frenchmen decrying the atrocities of the English in the Hundred Years War. Even where we have contemporary, domestic sources, these may be hostile to the subject, for example the interrogation records of the Inquisition describing the Cathars or Gestapo memos on the German resistance to Hitler.

What this means is that the best information we have about historical figures is usually their actions. My father always told me to judge a man by what he did, not what he said, but this can be very difficult across the distance of 500 years or more. And, of course, in certain situations we cannot even be sure that deeds attributed to one personality or another were in fact committed by them. Did Richard III order the murder of his nephews or didn’t he? The sons of Edward IV disappeared while Richard III was king. Bones have been found that appear to match boys their age. Carbon dating suggests a date within the period of Richard’s short reign. Yet anyone familiar with the Richard III controversy knows there are powerful arguments against Richard’s guilt and a number of other historical figures, who could conceivably committed (or ordered) the murders.

In short, while a novelist writing biographical fiction has to keep to the known facts, he/she still has a great deal of leeway. In most cases, there is almost unlimited freedom when it comes to describing emotions and attitudes, and these in turn determine the nature of relationships and – ultimately – the character of an individual. With the identical set of facts, two good historical novelists could create equally convincing and yet virtually opposite characters. Sticking to my Richard III example: the bald fact is that Richard married Anne Neville, the widow of his arch-rival, the Lancastrian prince Edward. Depending on how one interprets this fact, he either forced himself on a helpless, grieving widow or he rescued his childhood sweetheart after her father bartered her into a hated first marriage.
 
It is all about interpretation, a phenomenon that actors will recognize well. In a play, the same actions, even the same lines, can be transformed by interpretation – and that is what makes writing biographical fiction so much fun.