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 remains the benchmark for any book of fiction about Henry V. Fortunately, I’m not writing about Henry V!
However, 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 novel 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 who 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, and after reading Gates of Fire, I started doing research on ancient Sparta. 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 did he make his story-telling so effective? Was there any point in going “toe-to-toe” with an internationally best-selling author? Or should I, like Snedeker, find a way of evading 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 magnificant job of describing male bonding on a 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 that all it means to us?
Pressfield’s heroes are already crippled by the end of the first day of fighting, yet continue to perform feats of super-human strength and endurance, heedless of pain and physics for another two days. Pressfields heroes are demi-gods – like Achilles and Hektor.
But Leonidas was a real human being, a historical, not a mythical figure. So were the other 300 Spartans and 700 Thespeians. They all had real names, real (not divine) parents, and they felt real pain. They had only the strength of real men. Shouldn’t we honor them for what they were, rather than turn them into supermen?
Many people want supermen, cartoon-heroes, supernatural heroes. For them, there are lots of “Leonidases” on the market from films and cartoons to 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 literature on 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.