The Song of Kings

Here is a worthy historical novel. Beautifully crafted, written with compelling force, it recounts the extraordinary incident at Aulis which preceded the Trojan War. Buy it and you will thank me! All of the stock characters appear, though in an interesting twist, the story is largely told from the point of view of Calchas.


In the Iliad, you will remember, Nestor, as the aged veteran, is accorded considerable respect. Not here. Here Nestor appears as an aged quack, lovingly tended to by his two sons. He is given to amusing outbursts from time to time. One occurs at an important meeting of the chiefs. Silence descends at one point during which what are described at the "plaintive mutterings" of Nestor can embarrassingly be heard. His sons attempt to silence him. Readers of the Iliad will well remember that Nestor was fond of talking up his past heroics. Here he can be heard reminiscing aloud about a cattle raid into Elis he had made in his distant youth:

`....show these Trojan dogs a thing or two, I'd be over there in two shakes of a duck's tail if I was young again, in those days I could out distance the wind, I would race ahead of it, as I did when we were rustling cattle in Elis, they couldn't stop us...I heard the wind behind me, wailing because it couldn't keep up...'


There is a running gag, that is extremely funny in places, that focuses upon the stumbling invention of the Olympic Games by Ajax, of all people. Bored out of his mind at Aulis, Ajax announces to Calchas that he intends to organise a "Day of Games". "Something never heard of before", he proudly announces. The notion had come to him in a dream which is why he brought it to, Calchas, Calchas "being the chap best qualified in the dream department.'
One of his lackeys shouts out, `We could have races!' This interruption annoys Ajax who turns on the man saying, `Numbskull, there are races already. Everyone knows what a race is. I am talking about something completely new.'


As for the dream itself, this is quite funny. In Ajax' dream, he not unsurprisingly appears at the forefront of a competition which sounds a lot like a decathlon - only the events are all events at which he would be particularly good, such a wrestling and the javelin. At the end of the competition, he suddenly hears a great clamour, everyone chanting, "Ajax! Ajax! Ajax has won the most points!" This inspired him, in effect, to invent the Olympic Games:
"...and it came to me that some god was telling me to organise a Games Day with different events, not just running - I'm too heavy for running - javelin throwing, for example, and give points to the winner and the one coming in second and so on.'"
It will perhaps not have escaped your notice that his conception of the Games is developed along lines that will guarantee his victory. It would seem the Games were no different 3,000 years ago -- rigged!


Perhaps one of the only unsatisfying aspects of Unsworth's treatment of the story comes with his depiction of Achilles. If you recall Euripides' version, you will know that the story is as much about Achilles as anything else. It is about his education. He was not as one dimensional at Unsworth would have it. We get not a glimmer of that here. Achilles ends the book as he began it. We see no hint of the sort of man he will become by the time of his death at Troy. And this was profoundly disappointing.


A good example is a confrontation between Ajax and Achilles over, of all things, a latrine that Ajax had ordered his men to build. In this passage Achilles shrugs in what is described as a "lithe, luxuriant, deeply self-loving" manner. He deliberately provokes Ajax into a rage. Calchas who watched the incident thought,"Achilles was a natural killer. These Mycenaeans were all warlike and brutal, but Achilles was a special case, he enjoyed homicide as a leisure activity. These last words were a deliberate provocation. Nothing ever led anywhere, with Achilles, except back to his own pride and perfection." Now it is true that Achilles was probably all these things. But in Euripides one at least gains the sense of what the man may become.


Unsworth's writes in an idiom that is often very modern - often startlingly so, it is quite unusual. Rather in the tradition of Stanley Lombardo's outstanding translation of the Iliad itself. But it works beautifully. Here's an example also drawn from the Latrine episode: `It's NOT my latrine,' The booming voice of Ajax filled the tent. He was staring at Achilles with furious hostility. `Good grief,' he said, `Do you think I use it myself? It's for the men, not the officers.'


Unsworth's style is both taut AND lyrical, a rare combination. The ending is a bona fide surprise. I have said little about one of the major characters - Iphigeneia herself. Unsworth's portraits of Iphegenia and her maid are deeply nuanced and extraordinarily life-like. An important lesson that the Greeks taught humanity (now largely forgotten) is this: If is true that our lives are fated, then it is also true that the manner in which we deal with our fate will demonstrate the stuff that we are made. Iphigeneia's decision (and the related actions of her maid) is breath-taking and principled -- awe-inspiring and heart-breaking. Her actions shamed both the men and gods in whose clutches she found herself.