"The Songs of the Kings" by Barry Unsworth

How a glorious war of liberation turned to maniacal carnage and devastation -- in this gripping historical novel, it happened 3,000 years ago, when the Greeks laid siege to Troy.

Published April 15, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

The Trojan War certainly wasn't the first great war ever waged, but in the Western mind it might as well be. It looms that large in our collective imagination, shaping our images of heroism and tragedy on the battlefield. When we think about war, somewhere underneath it all, we still think about Troy. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, in his book "Achilles in Vietnam," used Homer's "Iliad" to understand the psychology of fighting men; today, generals swear by his work. In his bestselling memoir of the first Gulf War, "Jarhead," Anthony Swofford describes taking advantage of a break in the campaign to read Homer's epic poem. Another Marine notices him at it, and asks, "What the fuck are you reading?" Swofford hands him the book, and the guy checks out the back cover. "That's some heavy dope, sniper," he says. "Cool."

A line soldier instinctively knows that stories are a key part of an army's arsenal, a tool that's kept its potency even as the swords, spears and arrows of the Trojan War have given way to cruise missiles and cluster bombs. The immediate, frightening experience of battle makes very little sense, and to keep going, soldiers need something to knit that chaos and horror together and give it meaning. And while some armchair warriors might dismiss quarrels about the meaning of any given war as mere words, those words have real power. We remember the Trojan War -- a war that, to be scrupulously historical, may or may not have actually happened -- mostly because it was the subject of a great poem.

Like any other war, such as the war we're almost done fighting now, the Trojan War was a battle of stories as well as arms, and that battle continued long after the bodies of the men who fought in the siege of Troy had rotted away. In fact, it's still going on. We are still arguing about what the Trojan War means, just as we're likely to go on arguing about what the current war means for many years. The latest installment in the conversation is British author Barry Unsworth's new novel, "The Songs of the Kings." Unsworth's conception of why people go to war -- and what persuades them to lay down their lives for what often doesn't amount to much more than an idea -- is a very modern one. He doesn't just court comparisons between the Trojan War and the current one; he practically begs them.

"The Songs of the Kings" doesn't actually take place during the siege of Troy, but rather during a key episode leading up to it. It's about the strange cocktail of self-interest, superstition and idealism that propels people into organized violence. The novel is set mostly in Aulis, across the Aegean Sea from Troy, where the Greek fleet is stranded by a freakish north wind that prevents them from sailing to their destination. The Greek army -- more a loose confederation of tribes than a unified force -- is getting restless, and its chosen leader, Agamemnon, has grown suspicious and unsure of his command. According to the Greeks' beliefs, the contrary wind must indicate the displeasure of a god. Agamemnon is told that the only way to change the wind is to appease the god by sacrificing his own daughter, Iphigenia, on the sacred altar.

Homer never mentions the story of Iphigenia in either "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey." Either he knew about it and rejected it, or it was added to the tradition later on, along with various other details and anecdotes. (For example, in "The Iliad" the warrior Achilles has no superhuman invulnerability; the notion that he could be wounded only in the heel appears elsewhere.) The main source for Unsworth's novel appears to be Euripides' play "Iphigenia at Aulis," a tragedy written in the fifth century BCE, roughly 300 years after "The Iliad." With it, Euripides joined the already begun project of taking the legendary Greek heroes down a peg or two. Unsworth takes them down about 17.

Not that even Homer's Greek heroes are flawless. "The Iliad," after all, begins with a lament about "the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians [Greeks]." Because of a spat with Agamemnon over a concubine, Achilles sits out a few battles in the Trojan War, although he and everyone else knows the Greeks cannot defeat the Trojans without him. Though Homer's Achilles is noble and brave, as well as the Greeks' most formidable warrior, he's also stubborn, even spiteful, and the extravagance of his temper sets the poem's disasters in motion.

In Unsworth's telling (as in Shakespeare's caustically cynical play about the war, "Troilus and Cressida"), Achilles is a vain rotter: "a natural killer ... he enjoyed homicide as a leisure activity ... Nothing ever led anywhere, with Achilles, except back to his own pride and perfection, to the gestures with which he endlessly celebrated his own marvelous existence." Furthermore, in the novel's terms, he's a relatively minor character. "The Songs of the Kings" focuses primarily on the seer Calchas, himself a minor character in "The Iliad," and on a slave girl belonging to Iphigenia, Sisipyla, who, I hardly need add, doesn't figure in any ancient Greek account of the war at all.

Through the eyes of these two outsiders, Unsworth shows us a Greek army whose motives are purely mercenary. The impetus for the attack on Troy -- the "abduction" of Helen, wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, by the Trojan prince Paris -- is a mere "pretext."

"Troy meant one thing only to the men gathered here as it did to their commanders," Calchas thinks. "Troy was a dream of wealth." That view of the motives of warmongers sounds a lot like the contemporary complaint that, despite the high-minded reasons it gives for invading Iraq, the United States is really after oil.

Unsworth doesn't limit himself to attributing entirely modern intentions to these ancient chieftains -- he gives them an up-to-the-minute vocabulary as well. This isn't a blunder like those made by more inept historical novelists. Unsworth deliberately puts anachronistic words like "cost-effectiveness" and "state-of-the-art" into his characters' mouths. The figures who use them most frequently, the wily Odysseus and Agamemnon's chief scribe, Chasimenos, are precisely the people most intent on manipulating the king, his captains and the army at large.

For mysterious reasons, brainy Odysseus, the Greek hero a contemporary bookish type might be expected to identify with, has suffered the most as the legend of the Trojan War has been told and retold over the years. In Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," Ulysses (the Roman version of Odysseus' name) is the consummate slippery relativist, speaking of the meaninglessness of virtue unless it is admired by others and craftily manipulating the petulant Achilles back into the fray by dinging his pride. Richmond Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation of "The Iliad," writes testily of the way that other authors -- including Euripides, Pindar, Sophocles and Dante -- have portrayed Odysseus: "His valor and devotion forgotten, [he has] stood ever since for the crafty, treacherous politician."

Lattimore, who died in 1984, would probably have shuddered at "The Songs of the Kings," in which Odysseus comes out even worse. In this novel, he is a venal, Machiavellian schemer whose only vulnerability is the excessive pleasure he takes in manipulating others: "His own fluency betrayed him sometimes, when he felt the sort of excitement that possessed him now, the prospect, through words alone, of prevailing over another mind, using the fears and desires of that mind to disarm and control it." A merciless combination of consummate propagandist and master courtier, the Karl Rove of the Greeks, Odysseus drives the novel's events in a quest to grab the glory and booty he considers his due.

By giving the largest portion of the novel's contemporary euphemisms to Odysseus and his co-conspirator Chasimenos, Unsworth is sometimes trying to show how this degraded language provides a mask for the predations of power -- think of terms like "downsizing" and "collateral damage." The mask seems especially thin when attached to the stark, primitive struggles of the Greeks. At other times, the author plays the contrast for laughs, applying banal modern words to a culture in which men win fame for deeds -- rape and murder -- that we would judge to be war crimes, and magical events are commonplace. In discussing a supposed rival for Agamemnon's power, Chasimenos says, "His father was one of that band of heroes who sailed with Jason on the Argo in the quest for the Golden Fleece. That's the sort of thing that is bound to look impressive on a person's CV."

Unsworth's point, not surprisingly, is that, alien as the brutal world of these Greeks might seem, it is not so different from our own. Agamemnon's "expeditionary force" (as he dubs this fleet of raiders) includes its own embed of sorts: a nearly blind bard known only as the Singer. (Homer was reputed to be blind, although his very existence is subject to doubt, and he wrote about the Trojan War hundreds of years after it happened, if it ever did.) The various eminent personages among the force spend a lot of time lobbying and bullying the Singer to make sure their own stories get properly spun. Odysseus bribes the singer to circulate the rumor that the uncooperative wind has been caused by some transgression of the king, and once Agamemnon is softened up to the idea of sacrificing his own daughter, his first question is "What will they sing about me?"

According to the ancient versions of the story, Calchas told Agamemnon that Iphigenia had to die; in Unsworth's novel Calchas argues against the killing but loses the debate to the priest of Zeus. Unsworth's Calchas serves a hermaphroditic god from his homeland in "Asia" (what we now call Turkey) who roughly translates to the Greek god Apollo combined with his sister Artemis. Calchas is a believer and a visionary, but in his understanding, "the truth of things always lay in contradiction." His reading of the signs and omens is never clear-cut enough for the Greeks.

Talking with Chasimenos, Odysseus sums up Calchas as a man "who doesn't think politically. He's an intellectual, he spends his time trying to establish what things mean, whereas you and I know that meaning jumps this way and that according to circumstances." Calchas' communications with the goddess Artemis "will confuse him further. And the more confused he is, the more he will complicate the matter, and the more he complicates the matter, the less dangerous he will be as a counselor. Agamemnon is in deep trouble, he will need simple words, he will not welcome subtleties." By contrast, the patriarchally minded priest of Zeus triumphs because his "strength lay in the narrowness of his vision, the simplicity of his message. Simplicity, when it was passionate, would always win."

What Odysseus means is that you can keep changing the story, that the stories themselves don't even have to be consistent, but they must always be easy to grasp and passionately sold. Menelaus easily segues from wanting nothing but vengeance against the "filthy Asians" who have stolen his bride to announcing "we could bring light to their darkness ... We have a duty towards these people." Calchas' mistake lies in insisting that while the Greeks may have a just cause to attack Troy -- in stealing Helen, Paris has violated hospitality codes that are sacred to these people -- the war itself is not just; it will slaughter too many innocents.

It's one thing to persuade people of the righteousness of acting on their own greed, but Odysseus also manages to persuade Agamemnon to kill his favorite child. The death of Iphigenia stands for every cherished, blameless life the Greek army, or any army, is willing to destroy in the prosecution of any war, however just. (It's also noteworthy that she is the king's daughter; the Greeks don't live in a world where leaders get to sacrifice other men's lives and sons without risking their own.) In convincing not only Agamemnon but Iphigenia herself that this sacrifice is necessary, Odysseus achieves his masterpiece.

How does he do it? By selling Agamemnon and Iphigenia on the notion of their own noble destinies. "What choice has a man when the gods have singled him out for greatness?" Odysseus tells Agamemnon. This plays into the king's vanity and his self-pity: "We who are destined to greatness must bear the burden for all," Agamemnon says, tearing up. "It is a heavy thing that is laid upon me." And when offered the possibility of reprieve, Iphigenia rejects it because Odysseus has told her that "it is my destiny to save my father and my people ... I said the words again inside myself and I knew he was right. It is what I was born for."

Where do people pick up such notions if not in songs, specifically in the songs of the kings? For Unsworth, nested inside the legends of the Trojan War, in the text of "The Iliad" itself, is the idea that grand words and stirring tales have the power to induce people to lay down their lives, often for reasons that don't hold up under cool scrutiny. The goddess visits Calchas with a vision: The Trojan War will result in a river of blood flowing off into a waste of emptiness. For, while the Greeks will win the siege, victory will come only after a decade of fighting, most of their great leaders, including Achilles, will die in the process, and Troy itself will be obliterated. Agamemnon will survive the campaign only to be murdered in his own home by the wife who cannot forgive him for their daughter's death. The legend's most notable survivor, Odysseus, is the man who best understands how intoxicating and treacherous words can be.

The French philosopher Simone Weil looked at "The Iliad" and saw an object lesson in the terrible impartiality of what she called "force." In a famous essay on the poem, she observed that to exert force on another person reduces him or her to a mere thing. Force is dehumanizing, and it's a mistake to think that whatever power it invests in the victor of a contest will last; eventually, the mighty become the conquered and meet the same utter lack of mercy. For Weil, "The Iliad" is a heartbreaking and beautiful testament to the tragic world created by the rule of force.

Elsewhere, however, in an essay called "The Power of Words," Weil wrote that wars fought over ideas are always more savage than those motivated by the "machinations of economic interests." Ideological wars are the struggles that erupt into the most grievous and senseless of atrocities, because the combatants can never be sure of securing an intangible victory and the project of shoring up glory can go on forever. "It is natural that the most implacable conflicts should arise out of imaginary disputes," she wrote, "because these take place solely on the level of power and prestige." Weil made the mistake of deciding that the Trojan War had been fought over a woman, and that this saved it from "the unreal character of most of the conflicts taking place today."

Unsworth could be replying to Weil by capturing the moment in which the assault on Troy stops being about retrieving Helen and seizing treasure and becomes something grander -- an exercise in nobility, the forging of the Greek tribes into a nation, and finally, the "liberation" of the people of Troy. It is exactly at this moment that a young girl dies for nothing. We tend to disparage wars fought for crude gain, yet such wars are finished when the prize is captured. The time to worry is when we feel ourselves stirred with lofty sentiment, filled with a sense of our own great destiny, and fired up by our role in a glorious story. That is the time to look over our shoulder -- chances are the wily Odysseus is whispering in our ear.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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