Friday, September 28, 2012

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield (historical Greco-Persian Wars fiction)

Author Steven Pressfield's epic retelling of the legendary battle of Thermopylae ("hot gates"), Gates of Fire, is told by the sole Greek survivor, a Spartan Perioikoi named Xeones, slain via spear, but revived by King Xerxes to tell "the infantryman's tale."

Xeo begins in childhood, begging His Majesty's pardon, when his hands were broken and he lamented that he would never hold sword, shield, or spear. But later he discovered that hands that don't close can still hold an archer's bow steady and pull back the string with two fingers.

He goes on to describe his time as the battle squire of Alexandros, a gentle youth housing great bravery, and delves further into Alexandros's own military training, including a humiliating lesson on keeping one's shield battle-ready, the conquering of fear, the identifying of the slain, the unconventional work of their commander Dienekes, and a particularly grueling session from Polynikes:
"Imagine the pleasure that awaits you when you clash in line of battle.... Killing a man is like fucking, only instead of giving life, you take it. You experience the ecstasy of penetration as your warhead enters the enemy's belly and the shaft follows. You see the whites of his eyes roll inside the sockets of his helmet. You feel his knees give way beneath him, and the weight of his faltering flesh draw down the point of your spear.... Is your dick hard yet?"
(Read more from that passage here.)

Gates of Fire covers every aspect of the battle from the lengthy preparations through the skirmishes themselves to the aftermaths.  Pressfield does not shy away from — and seems to sometimes relish in — descriptions of carnage, from "carpets" of corpses trodden upon by those still fighting; to calf-deep lakes of blood, urine, and "unholy" entrail fluids.

We read about spears torn from one body then thrust into another, flying battle axes, arrows shot at point-blank range, split oaken shields, and numerous other spoliations that will please any reader who enjoys the barbaric nature of real hand-to-hand combat before guns made everything so... distant.

Pressfield keeps the immediacy of the action through gore and the intensity of leaders through their frequent use of insults and swearing.  A highlight of a different sort comes via an amusing and surprising conversation between Xeo and Lady Arete.

While reading Gates of Fire, I was surprised at the variety of other works it reminded me of.  It seems to take inspiration from I, Claudius and Shakespeare histories like Henry V, and from heroic fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin, as much as from the actual history of the Greco-Persian Wars (if not more so). 

It's easy to see why it has become required reading in the Marines and at West Point, preparing students for the fact of their own mortality and for situations when their greatest fear will be not of death but of hesitation.

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