Reviewed by Jenny.
Mary Renault has a genius for the past. It’s in all her historical books: the stony, fated world of the Greeks, rushed forward to our softer and more chosen century. That quality of inevitability arises from the nearness of the gods to the Greeks, who—as you may recall from Homer—are many and difficult to please. Even if Athena inspires you to heights of military brilliance, Poseidon might still spend twenty years battering you all around the Mediterranean before you reach the promised shores of Ithaca.
Divine powers do not interfere overtly in Mary Renault’s books about Alexander the Great, but they’re a constant presence. The young Alexander we meet in Fire from Heaven knows early that he belongs to the god Herakles. Though his mother, Olympias, may cling to him as his father, Philip, plots how to make a man of him, Alexander always has his eyes on a destiny greater than either of them, a destiny that comes from the god. At twelve, he sneaks out of his home and sets off alone to take his first man:
He dreamed that Herakles came up to the bed and shook him. He looked as he did in the garden shrine at Pella, beardless and young, hooded in the fanged mask of the lion, its mane hanging down behind. “Get up, lazy boy,” he said, “or I shall start without you. I have been calling you this long time.” (from Fire from Heaven)
This glimpse at Alexander’s internal life is fairly rare as the books progress. Much of Fire from Heaven comes to us through Alexander’s associates, particularly his dearest friend, Hephaestion; the whole of the second book, The Persian Boy, is from the perspective of his lover Bagoas, a Persian eunuch. It’s a shrewd move on Renault’s part, unabashed partisan of Alexander’s that she is. Portraying him through the eyes of men who love him (and it is men—as is usual with Renault, there aren’t many women around) serves as effective cover for her hagiographic impulses.
It also gives her the space to explore the idea that’s central to her Alexander: his dependence on stories as models for his life. When someone wants to guide the behavior of this exceptionally powerful and unbiddable man, the best way to do it is to appeal to one of the stories he loves. If one course of action will be more like Achilles, then that’s the course Alexander will follow. In one sense this is incredibly endearing, especially to a bookworm like me, and in another sense it’s a pretty potent psychological truth. For much of his early life, Alexander is an intelligent, nervy child with a great deal of responsibility earmarked for him and two parents whose ethics he can’t trust. It’s no surprise, then, that he depends for moral instruction upon the heroes of history.
Here’s Bagoas, as Alexander tells him the story of the Iliad:
We came quite soon to Patroklos, who had been [Achilles’s] friend from boyhood; who took his part and comforted his exile, and died of taking his place in battle; and how Achilles avenged him, though it had been foretold his own death must follow. . . . [Alexander] did not tell it with art, like the taletellers in the market, but as if he had been there and remembered everything. At last I knew where my rival [Hephaestion] stood, grafted into his spirit, deeper than any memories of the flesh. There could be only one Patroklos. What was I, to that, but the flower one sticks behind one’s ear and throws away dead at sunset?
I can’t say enough about Renault’s research and attention to detail. She tells these stories the way Alexander tells Homer. As if she spent a few years time-traveling to ancient Greece like a Hellenic Claire Randall, embedded with the Macedonian army and taking copious notes to keep track of dinner menus, plant life, and methods of military planning.
Now and again some stubborn hill-fort would hold out, and he would make a siege-train; catapults taken apart to load on mules, wood for ladders if the land was treeless; if he could bring one up, a jolting siege-tower, drawn by ten yoke of oxen; litters for the wounded, if it was too rough for wagons. He would ride up and down the line, seeing everything for himself. It was almost beyond belief, out of so many thousand men, how many he knew. Often they laughed; the solder with the King, or the King with the soldier.
From the first page of Fire from Heaven to his death at the end of The Persian Boy, Alexander is the flame that lights up these books. Any history of Alexander can tell you of the loyalty and admiration he inspired in his own troops, and Mary Renault manages to write him as a character you couldn’t not love and admire. Writing characters who are both good and interesting is Renault’s particular gift, and it’s on full display here. I’m thrilled that Virago has released new editions of these books, bringing Renault’s marvelous Alexander to a new generation of readers.
Jenny blogs at Reading the End.