Book Review: Colleen McCullough, The Song of Troy
The Masters of Rome novels are set in the last decades of the Republic, the age of Caesar and Cicero, a time that I have always found fascinating. My interest was probably born from reading a juvenile biography of Caesar as a child, grew in my teens when I discovered Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa historical mysteries and developed further with Rex Warner’s excellent novelized biography of Caesar. So when some years ago I discovered by chance at a secondhand bookshop the second title of the Masters of Rome series, I found it to be what I had always dreamt of reading, and I eagarly searched for the other titles till I had read them all. These novels are epic in scope and detail, being each almost one thousand pages long and including lengthy glossaries. They are carefully researched and use practically every piece of information we have about the people of that age, but give life to the characters as no history textbook could. Perhaps their only fault is that the portrait of Caesar, who dominates the story in the last three books, shows him as too flawless and perfect in some respects. But the richness and realism with which the other figures (Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Pompeius, Brutus, and dozens of others) are described, and the powerful progression of political and military conflicts that eventually destroy the Republic, more than compensate for it. The Wikipedia article linked above says McCullough is writing a seventh book to conclude the series. I pray it comes out soon.
Taking a rest from the Roman Novels, she published in 1998 the book I am reviewing now, a novelization of the Troyan War which I have read last week. Giving such an epic subject, I was expecting something with the scale of the Roman series. But I was disappointed in that expectation; the book is less than 500 pages long, and as it tries to tell the whole story starting from the birth of Paris, it inevitably goes a pretty fast pace. In the Roman novels we may have sometimes dozens of pages devoted to a single battle or Senate meeting; here some stories (like Odysseus trying to feign madness to avoid going to the war) are introduced and finished with in three or four pages. This is the first problem with the book: it is at least half too short of what it should be to give the characters and the story the depth they deserve. Of course, not everyone likes 1000-pages long books, and I might be judging only by contrast with the Roman books; so let’s move on.
The story is told from multiple points of view, with successive chapters narrated by Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Helen, Brise, Hektor, Priam and others. I didn’t like too much this constantly shifting point of view because the characters don't have time to develope a personality beyond some simple basic traits: Odysseus = clever and amoral, Helen = spoiled and sensuous, and so on.
I want to comment on something that made me reflect while and after reading the book: the choices made by the author with regard to the gods and other “mythical” aspects of the story. Deciding on how seriously to take them is a crucial question for someone writing an historical novel based on Greek mythology (or the Bible, for that matter). On one extreme, one could simply include the gods and supernatural events as completely real within the story, just as Homer does; the problem with this is that for a modern reader it could work as Tolkien-esque fantasy, but never as historical novel. It would be a different kind of story, not situated on a real date of the historical past. On the other extreme one could exclude all supernatural aspects of the story and leave only the human ones, rationalizing or directly eliminating from the story all mythical elements; this is perhaps the easiest approach, and it was used in the recent Hollywood movie Troy, which as far as I remember did not include the supernatural at all. An intermediate path, difficult but rewarding if well done, is to create a sort of magical realism athmosphere where the Gods are “felt” as real, and events like fulfilled prophecies and true oracles are common, but the gods do not appear in person and there are no events that are clearly and explicitly supernatural. The reader can then still read the story as historical fiction –but set in a time where mythos seems really true in some sense. Robert Graves was a master of this form, applying it to the Argonauts story (The Golden Fleece) and the Gospels story (King Jesus). Only that the mythology alive in the background of these novels was not any historically accurate one but his own personally created myth of the White Goddess.
But I am digressing, and a discussion Graves’ fascinating and bizarre poetic mythology will have to be left for another post. The point I was arriving to is that McCullough seems to vacillate between the no-nonsense realistic approach and the magical realism one. Oracles and prophecies abound in her book and are always truthful, but the characters act motivated by purely human and worldy causes, and many mythical themes receive explicit mundane rationalizations (e.g. it is said that someone who claims to have a God as father is usually a bastard). This makes the mythical components left in the story seem somehow unreal and fake. Given the amount of rationalizations there are, I was surprised at seeing at the end that the Trojan Horse was kept in the story. In fact, the global traditional plotline is followed pretty accurately -with one major exception. (Spoiler ahead!)
McCullough chooses to describe the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over Brise and the consequent wrath of Achilles deserting the army as just a ruse, a clever plot designed by Odysseus with the connivence of Agamemnon and Achilles. The point is to make the Trojans confident at seeing discord inside the Greek camp, go out of the city and engage the Greeks in battle, so Achilles can suddenly turn back into combat and defeat them. It seemed to me here that McCullough was trying to be too clever by half; it is an original idea but quite contrived and unbelievable, and makes key aspects of the story farcical.
On the other hand, I don’t want to sound too disparaging of the book: the tale is really captivating, and honestly I had difficulty in putting down the book before I had finished it. So perhaps I have been criticizing it to strongly for what it deserves; as a minor historical novel with less aspirations than the Masters of Rome series it does a good job. But overall, I would be much more happy if Ms. McCullough had dedicated the time spent writing The Song of Troy to write instead half of an extra Roman novel.