Sunday, April 7, 2013

A young Alexander prepapring for greatness

Fire From Heaven
A novel by Mary Renault (1970, Penguin Books)

This is a finely written novel about the formative years of Alexander III of Macedon (356 – 323 BC), or Alexander the Great, which explores themes of honour, ambition, friendship, homosexuality and loyalty.

The young Alexander is born into a world of privilege, a world where men often distinguished themselves in battle, a world that is powered as much by myth and superstition as it is by warfare. Into this world, Alexander comes of age, making friends and enemies, learning about philosophy (he was tutored by Aristotle) and gathering experiences on and off the battlefield that will serve him well when it comes time to inherit his father’s kingdom.

Renault’s Alexander seems destined from an early age to achieve greatness. As a young boy, he is he quick to observe the power struggles between his father and mother and the shifting allegiances among neighbouring states. Even when choosing friends, Alexander is bound by a moral code and keen intuition that will pay dividends throughout his rise to power.

The main challenge I had with Fire From Heaven is that I’m not versed enough in ancient Greek history, and so many of the references to Greek Gods, kings, battles and events were lost on me. To fully appreciate the depth and subtlety of this novel, readers would do well to possess a nodding acquaintance with Greek history. It would save a lot of Wikipedia searches.

But this observation is no reflection on the power of Renault’s writing, which has the ability transport readers to a fascinating era (Hellenistic) of Greek history. Renault’s eye for detail and her skillfulness at creating vivid scenes are extraordinary. Here, for instance, is 12 year-old Alexander poised for his first battle:
The rose-red on the hill-tops changed to gold. He stood between death and life as between night and morning, and thought with a soaring rapture, ‘I am not afraid.’ It was better than music or his mother’s love; it was the life of the gods. No grief could touch him, no hatred harm him. Things looked bright and clear, as to the stooping angel. He felt sharp as an arrow, and full of light.
Renault is brings the world of Alexander to life in Fire From Heaven with clarity, sensitivity and imagination. I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in reading a stirring portrait of one of history’s most accomplished and enigmatic figures. This type of historical fiction, in novel form, beats text book learning any day of the week, hands-down. 

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