November 6, 2011

Review: "The Songs of the Kings" by Barry Unsworth

I have just finished reading The Songs of the Kings by Booker Prize winner, Barry Unsworth.  This is an eloquent and powerfully written novel that is quite thought-provoking on several levels.  The novel was published in 2003, and I have to wonder if there was an external motivation behind Unsworth's writing of the novel than simply writing a good story?  More on that in a moment though.  First, I think it will be useful to provide a brief bit of background on a few important aspects of Greek mythology that bear on the plot of the novel.

Okay, so I need all of you to dredge up and recall some of the bits and pieces of Greek mythology that you've run across in the course of your life.  First, the "Judgment of Paris", where Paris (son of Trojan king and queen, Priam and Hecuba) selects Aphrodite as "the most beautiful" among the three goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.  In return, Aphrodite rewards Paris (the sycophant that he is) with the ability to 'seduce' and carry off Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and the brother of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae.  Second, as part of the agreement behind Helen choosing which suitor to marry, her father Tyndareus evoked a pledge from all of her suitors that they would rally and stand behind whoever her eventual husband was if there was ever any "future threat to the marriage".  The suitors--pretty much all of the Greek chieftains--so pledged, and Helen then selected Menelaus to be her husband.  Now, fast forward about ten-years, and along comes 'pretty-boy' Paris, and Helen elopes with him and off to Troy they go.  It is safe to say that this action probably qualified as a "threat to the marriage" of Helen and Menelaus.  Consequently, the Greeks rally their forces, under the command of Agamemnon, and set off to destroy Troy and 'rescue' Helen from the 'lecherous' clutches of Paris.  The Greek fleet sails to its initial rendezvous point on the east coast of Greece, to a little fishing village known as Aulis.  This is where Unsworth picks up the tale in The Songs of the Kings.

Unsworth's book is a story in five acts, and must be a nod to the structure typically utilized by the ancient Greek dramatists. The Greek fleet is trapped at Aulis by contrary winds and weather conditions, and the army, and its chieftains, are getting restless and losing their will to carry the fight to Troy.  In Unsworth's novel, we read of a cabal of the senior Greek leaders, instigated and led by Odysseus (he brings new meaning to the term "Machiavellian"), that begins to develop a conspiracy that will compel Agamemnon and Menelaus to irrevocably commit to the War with Troy.  Using intrigue, deception, selective interpretation and misinformation, the conspirators convince Agamemnon that Zeus requires the sacrifice of his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia; and that with her sacrifice, the weather conditions will change and the Greek fleet can set sail.  At first, as one can well imagine, Agamemnon is horrified at the thought of having to offer up his child as a sacrifice to the gods.  Odysseus and the other conspirators determinedly continue to brow-beat and cajole Agamemnon into doing the right thing for Greece and restoring its national honor.

The Greek leaders, in the novel, are really more like a gang of Wall Street CEOs, all trying to exert their own influence and power and looking to acquire more treasure, honor and glory.  Morality and principles mean little to nothing to most of them.  Unsworth's portrayal of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, and Achilles is unflattering at best.  These are vain-glorious men who care little for anything or anybody if it doesn't benefit them in the long-run.  Unsworth satirically plays off of many of the personality traits that can be gleaned from Homer's portrayal in The Iliad and The Odyssey, or of the later Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  For example, there is Agamemnon, the thuggish control-freak; Menelaus, the weak-willed cuckold; or Odysseus, the clever and manipulative talker; or Achilles, the sulking glory-hound dilettante; or the two Ajaxes, Big and Little, both just brutish homicidal maniacs.  The one character that sees through the conspiracy is Calchas, the foreign-born priest of Apollo.  He knows that this is all a terrible fabric of lies, but feels powerless to stand up to the conspirators.

In the 'second act' of the book, the conspirators have finally succeeded in convincing Agamemnon that he is really left with no choice, and that he must sacrifice his daughter for the national good.  He is told that in the long-run the poets will sing his praises for the courage he showed in reaching this difficult decision.  Unsworth even creates the character of a blind bard, or "singer", who the conspirators use to disseminate their lies and misinformation in his songs and poems that recites at the soldiers fires at night.  If a story is told a certain way long enough, it becomes true.  The conspirators understand the use of the media and religion in getting 'the facts' out there for the masses.  Now, the entire army knows that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter to propitiate the gods and create the favorable conditions necessary to prosecute the war.

Unsworth also takes the reader back to Mycenae in the novel's 'third act' and spends several chapters introducing and developing the characters of Iphigeneia and her maid-servant, Sisipyla.  After getting to know Iphigeneia, the reader can't help but become more and more horrified at the impending doom that seems to face this likeable young woman.  I need to mention too that Iphigeneia is also a priestess for the goddess Artemis (the twin sister of Apollo, and goddess of the hunt, wild animals, goddess of childbirth, and the protector of all young living things, animal and human).  Iphigeneia has been trained in this role by her mother, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife and the Mycenaean queen.  The horror just continues to mount when a delegation from Agamemnon shows up in Mycenae with the news that Iphigeneia must travel to Aulis in order to be married to Achilles.  Of course, Clytemnestra and Iphigeneia think this is wonderful news, as Achilles, the son of a goddess (Thetis) is also the champion of the entire Greek army.  The reader knows though that this is all just a ruse to get Iphigeneia to Aulis.  I felt utterly helpless as I read about this lovely young woman happily packing her wedding trousseau and preparing for the trip to see her father and to meet her betrothed.

You'll have to read the 'last act' of the novel to find out how it ends.  There's an intriguing twist that had me holding my breath as I read the last 50 pages of the book.  Iphigeneia and her maid, Sisipyla, have arrived in Aulis, and the tension among all of the characters was palpable and thick enough to cut with a bronze sacrificial knife (pun thoroughly intended).  At this point in the book, that old adage "the train has left the station" really applies, as things said, and things done are virtually irrevocable at this stage in the plot.  This knowledge, on the part of the reader just adds to the theater and drama of Unsworth's tale.

As I read this brilliant little novel there were a couple of observations that jumped out at me.  First, this book could have been an almost line-by-line script for the Bush Administration's run up to the war with Iraq.  The twisting and manipulation of facts by Odysseus and the other Greek chieftains in the novel eerily reminded me of the "weapons of mass destruction" issue and all of the speeches given by the President and members of his administration as the case for war with Iraq was constructed.  Secondly, I think Unsworth is also telling the story of the dangers of religious and gender persecution here.  Remember that Iphigeneia is a priestess for the goddess Artemis--an archetypal 'Mother Goddess'.  The Greek army's chief priests all serve Zeus, the Father of the gods, and are vocal proponents of the patriarchal system that was becoming widespread across the Bronze Age Mediterranean region.  These priests needed to eradicate the last vestiges of the worship of the Mother Goddess and the female deities.  By labeling Iphigeneia as a "witch" and then publicly killing her as a priestess of Artemis powerfully symbolized asserting their strength and control.

After making these observations while reading Unsworth's novel, I wondered if I was simply over-reaching and reading more into this than Unsworth intended.  I immediately read Euripides' last known play, Iphigeneia at Aulis (probably written about 404-402 B.C.E.).  Upon finishing it, I have to say that it is my opinion that Unsworth has done a terrific job in his novel at portraying the pathos, drama, intrigue, and humanity depicted in Euripides' powerful play.  Unsworth's novel makes us a party to the conspiracy, makes us feel the overwhelming guilt of a father who knows he is doing wrong, and makes us, in a somewhat voyeuristic fashion, a witness to a victim unwittingly proceeding down the path to her Fate and Destiny.  This is a story about decision-making that spirals out of control and the far-reaching consequences that affected not only the primary protagonists, but the Mycenaean empire, Troy and the Trojans, and even reaches out and touches all of us in our own time--i.e., the Iraq War.  Like Sophocles' great play, Antigone, Euripides' play and Unsworth's novel are hard-hitting examples of people placed in extraordinary and desperate circumstances requiring moral courage and the adoption and adherence to principled positions.  The failure to find that courage or the failure to stand up in the face of tyranny or persecution can have devastating consequences.  This, ultimately, is the message of Euripides in his play, Iphigeneia at Aulis, and in Barry Unsworth's beautiful novel, The Songs of Kings.

The Songs of the Kings
By Barry Unsworth
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2003, 341 pages.
From my personal collection.


Recommended Additional Reading:

Iphigeneia at Aulis, by Euripides
The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus
A Dream of Fair Women, Alfred Lord Tennyson (the 1842 version of the poem).


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