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The Sarissa's Song
The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield
© 2013 James LaFond
If you have seen many History Channel documentaries on ancient warfare you have seen Steven Pressfield. Improbably enough he wrote not only the novel, Gates of Fire, that inspired the comic and movie 300, but The Legend of Bagger Vance as well. I rate Gates of Fire as one of the top ten novels I have read, and liked Last of the Amazons as well.
The subject of Alexander the Great has always intrigued me. When I was still in high school I read seven history books about that one man. I own five books about Alexander now. It is bone chilling sometimes to consider that one long-dead killer can be a historical discipline all his own. I have an outline for a time-travel novel concerning Alexander that is two years away from completion. Now that I have set my sights on that I have to read everything written about him, particularly fiction. Stepping into the same precise subject as another, more accomplished writer, is a delicate matter. I am reading Mister Pressfield’s work largely to make certain that I do not cover the same portion of our subject’s career; and further more so that I do not use the same artifices, and also try to avoid contradicting those deductions of his that read most true—and at the same time not doing a work derivative of his in any way. This is a tricky dance, and it helps that I enjoy the man’s work so much, and that I will be doing science-fiction, permitting me to take a ‘what if road’ rather than redefining the ‘what was road’.
The Virtues of War
A Novel of Alexander the Great
Steven Pressfield
[2004, Doubleday,] 2005 Bantam, NY, 348 pages
This is a narrative of sorts, structured along the lines of a dictated memoir, not unlike Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein. The person telling the story is Alexander. He is relating his key life experiences to a young page named Itanes. Pressfield’s grasp of the psychology of ancient warfare is second to none, and he shines here. In essence, he used this odd retrospective form of narration so that he could not miss. This was like putting Chris Davis in a batting cage: a guaranteed homerun.
The story is narrated in 9 books by Alexander with a brief epilogue by Itanes. Each chapter within the books is thoughtfully and meaningfully named. I had chosen the title for this review early on and changed it often. I eventually concluded that the title for Chapter 17: The Sea and The Storm was ideal. Then, on the last page, the author, through Itanes, gave me the answer. The nine books give a good gist of the subject matter, and are as follows:
1. The Will to Fight
2. The Love of Glory
3. Self-Command
4. Shame at Failure
5. Contempt for Death
6. Patience
7. An Instinct for the Kill
8. Love for One’s Companions
9. Love for One’s Enemies
My favorite chapter was The Sea and The Storm, about Alexander’s parley with his greatest opponent before their battle, the Indus King Porus, who offered to adopt the young conqueror as a son, and teach him how to rule. This haunts Alexander for the rest of his story, as he continues to fight his way beyond the inalterable fact that it is impossible for a ruler to provide a just and honorable existence for his subjects. He finds that he can only find good qualities among men in war. The young war king’s dedication to this purifying pursuit; of something dynamic and consensual beyond the corrupt everyday bickering, exploitation and sloth of civilized life eventually turns him and those closest to him into monsters and embittered fallen heroes.
The tale of Alexander is ultimately of a race against apathy into the arms of insanity; a vicious—and the more so for his enlightened state of mind—flight to the ends of a world that was still bordered by shadows from the soul crushing fate he knew was that of the ruler and all those cursed to suffer beneath him.
Steven Pressfield has re-crafted an ancient tragedy into a story relevant today, offering lessons that must certainly go heroically unheeded in our time.
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