August 14, 2004

tight as the scales on a serpent's flank...

I do not normally recommend historical fiction, because most historical fiction is, by my standards, garbage. The past was different. If you delve beneath the surface levels of history, you will find yourself frequently perplexed...because people in other times thought and acted differently than we do.

So the very first test a historical novel must meet is to transport us into a world that seems weirdly different than ours. If a historical novel has characters that act or talk or think like you or I, it's the bunk. They are most of them equivalent to those fantasies, where we re-live our childhood and avoid all of our embarrassing mistakes. Historical novelists get to go to Elizabethan England and know, unlike everyone who actually lived then, that Shakespeare is the guy to watch. Idiocy.

I do recommend Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield, which centers on the military culture of ancient Sparta (which was also called Lacedaemon), and climaxes at the Battle of Thermopylae. (Warning, lots of blood and guts.) Here Xeo, the narrator, the squire of a Spartan Peer, describes the Spartan phalanx deploying for combat against a minor foe...

...To the beat the Spartans and their allies advanced, eight-footers [spears] at the upright, their honed and polished spearpoints flashing in the sun. Now the foe broke into an all-out charge. Leonidas, displaying neither haste nor urgency, fell into step in his place in the front rank, as it advanced to envelope him, with the Knights flowing impeccably into position on his left and right.

Now from the Lakedaemonian rank rose the paean, the hymn to Castor arising from four thousand throats. On the climactic beat of the second stanza,

Heaven-shining brother,
Skyborne hero
the spears of the first three ranks snapped from the vertical into the attack.

Words cannot convey the impact of awe and terror produced upon the foe, any foe, by this seemingly uncomplex maneuver, called in Lakedaemon "spiking it" or "palming the pine," so simple to perform on the parade ground and so formidable under conditions of life or death. To behold it executed with such precision and fearlessness, no man surging forward out of control, none edging right into the shadow of his rankmate's shield, but all holding solid and unbreakable, tight as the scales on a serpent's flank, the heart stopped in awe, the hair stood straight up upon the neck and shivers coursed powerfully the length of the spine.

As when some colossal beast, brought to bay by the hounds, wheels in his fury, bristling with rage and baring his fangs, and plants himself in the power and fearlessness of his strength, so did the bronze and crimson phalanx of the Lakedaemonians now snap as one into its mode of murder.

PS: My thanks to George Turner, blogger and weapons nut, who clarified for me how it might be possible to snap those spears from upright to horizontal (which in a Greek phalanx would, I believe, be overhand, stabbing over the shield) in one move. E-mail me if you are interested.

Posted by John Weidner at August 14, 2004 1:30 PM
Weblog by John Weidner