Review of The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth

The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth

Book Review of The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth

Greek myths and heroic epics have survived and prospered for millennia because they show the folly of both gods and mortals when they succumb to greed, vanity, lust, ambition, infidelity, and vengeance. Treachery, deceit, and violence beget more of the same, and those who rise to power on the wings of these vices are eventually brought down by them.

Rarely do these stories come to a happy ending and too often heroes die a lonely or violent death. These same storylines have been repeated throughout literature over the ages, and just the characters have changed.

In The Songs of the Kings, Barry Unsworth takes one small part of the story of the Trojan War to illustrate his point that these themes are timeless. After Helen left Greece to accompany Paris to Troy (by force or of her own consent), the Greeks raised an army to sack Troy, rescue Helen, and restore honor to their kingdom in the face of this Asian insult.

Greece wasn’t a country then, but a combination of kingdoms that made up the Greek peninsula. The different kingdoms all sent troops, allied under one commander-in-chief, the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon. The troops and their ships gathered at the port of Aulis in preparation for the crossing of the Aegean Sea. Among the men here under Agamemnon’s command were some of the most famous heroes of Greek legend: Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax of Salamis, and Ajax the Locrian.

Legend might portray this gathering as the greatest heroes and warriors of Greece banding together to avenge the kidnapping of the beautiful Helen from their homeland. In Barry Unsworth’s hands, however, the kidnapping of Helen is just an excuse for the Greeks to sack Troy, loot its wealth, and control commerce to the Euxine (Black) Sea. Those who have joined the expeditionary force did so out of a greed for the spoils of war, not for any desire for Greek unity.

The Songs of the Kings begins with the combined Greek forces encamped at Aulis because an ill wind makes them unable to set sail for Troy. The soldiers are restless and unhappy with the unending wind, meager rations, a poorly planned latrine, and rivalries between kingdoms grating on everyone’s nerves. King Agamemnon is aware that the alliance is shaky under these conditions and his leadership of both the military force and his own kingdom might crumple if the winds do not change soon. He sends for his diviner, Calchas, to ascertain why the gods won’t give him a favorable wind.

Calchas, however, is unsure of his visions and his interpretations of them, and is afraid that Agamemnon will not be happy with his dreams of the deaths of multitudes of soldiers in the battle for Troy. His hesitation and weakness, though, lets others posit their theories explaining the cause for the ill wind. Odysseus and the chief of Agamemnon’s palace staff, Chasimenos, begin making the argument that Zeus is displeased with Agamemnon and is causing the wind to blow against them.

Among the men in camp is a singer, a nearly blind man who sings the songs of the kings. With his lyre, he recounts the ancient myths and heroic struggles of the past, as well as news of the day and recent stories. Odysseus is a man who enjoys exploiting other men’s weaknesses and manipulating any opportunity to his own advantage.

He uses the singer, via a combination of threats and bribes, to work into his songs that Agamemnon’s offense to Zeus is the cause of the wind. Once this has been accepted by the common soldiers in the camp, Agamemnon is powerless to accept or explain any other reason. Odysseus then lets the other shoe drop. The offense is that Agamemnon’s oldest daughter, Iphigeneia, worships the goddess Artemis instead of Zeus. Artemis is the goddess of witchcraft and to appease Zeus, Iphigeneia must be sacrificed on an altar to the most powerful of gods.

Croton is the high priest for the followers of Zeus, fanatical is his devotion to his god and fervent in his belief that followers of Artemis are evil witches. With Odysseus’s prodding, he leads marches through the camp proclaiming that Iphigeneia must die to placate Zeus so that the army can sail for Troy. As more men join these marches, as the singer extols the virtues of Zeus, and as Odysseus and Chasimenos constantly work Agamemnon’s weaknesses against him, the king has no other option other than to send for his daughter and offer her as a sacrifice.

The first two sections of this book concern themselves with the encampment at Aulis and the manipulation of Agamemnon until he acquiesces to Iphigeneia’s sacrifice. It moves a bit slow at times, especially as the arguments are made to Agamemnon until he capitulates. The rest of the book moves much faster, either in the setting at the citadel at Mycenae or at the encampment as preparations are made for Iphigeneia’s arrival. Iphigeneia has been told that Achilles has asked for her hand in marriage, so she eagerly makes preparations for her wedding at Aulis before the ships sail.

With her are her slave girl, Sisipyla, who was given to Iphigeneia as a gift since she looks very much like her, and Macris, an officer of the palace garrison who wants Iphigeneia for himself. At Aulis, detailed preparations are made for the sacrificial knife, the altar to Zeus, and the building of the road leading to it. The morale of the troops improves as they wait for the spectacle of the sacrifice and the ensuing change in the winds that will allow them to sail to riches and glory. All this leads to Iphigeneia’s arrival in Aulis, the sudden dying of the wind once she arrives, the plot by Sisipyla and Macris to save her life, and Calchas finally finding the strength and willpower to tell the king the real explanation behind his visions.

As just a retelling of an ancient story, Barry Unsworth does a masterful job of explaining the reason for the sacrifice and the suspense and intrigue leading to Iphigeneia’s arrival. The author, though, imbues this novel with so much more. He tells the story in a modern voice and the ancient Greeks sound like 21st-century power brokers at times. In this way, the novel takes on a timeless flavor, that these men in their struggle for war, power, wealth, and fame could be from any century. They are just as convinced of the righteousness of their cause as they are of their own superiority above the common man.

Odysseus, king of a Ithaca, a small and unimportant island on the western side of Greece, sees the war with Troy as the steppingstone to wealth and greater fame. He’ll use any of his skills, whether his physical strength or his mastery of manipulation, to further his own cause. Achilles is a pompous man in love with his own image and with a heart of stone for everyone else. Ajax of Salamis is a huge brute of man whose physical prowess seems to come at the expense of any intelligence.

Ajax the Locrian is a well-known rapist of women who constantly has a semi-erection. These men are leaders of their kingdoms by brute strength, by their ability to raid other kingdoms and bring wealth back to their homeland, and by their ability to quash resistance to their rule. Nestor brags about the man he impaled on his sword while rustling his cattle. Menelaus, Helen’s husband, boasts about the local country girl he raped and what honor it should be to her to be raped by a king.

These are the heroes of legend. Barry Unsworth portrays these heroes with their shortcomings as a way to speculate about our own heroes and celebrities. The singer constantly tells of their heroic quests, their feats of strength and ability to outwit their opponents (often with help from the gods). How often do we overlook the misdeeds of our own heroes in worship of their conquests?

The singer plays an important role in this story. Not only does he recount the myths and stories that led to the military buildup at Aulis, but he is also part of the media and propaganda network of ancient Greece. What good are bravery and glory if the singers do not sing the praises of each heroic act? Odysseus also recognizes the power of controlling the media, while Agamemnon obviously does not.

The singer keeps the troops entertained and informed. Under Odysseus’s control, he also acts the sower of rumor and deceit. Odysseus knows that he who controls the media also controls the agenda. At the same time, all the kings are aware that their power resides in the people and soldiers willing to do their bidding. In the camp at Aulis, Odysseus makes sure the soldiers are on his side of the agenda, thereby forcing his views upon Agamemnon.

One of the strengths of this novel is that most of the story is told from the perspective of the lesser players in the drama. Many of the chapters concern Calchas, the one man in pursuit of the truth, but he is trumped by politics and religious fundamentalism. He is also limited because he’s an outsider, an Asian whose gods have been assimilated by the Greeks.

When confrontation comes with Croton and the cult of Zeus, this will be used against him. Other chapters are told from the point of view of Sisipyla and Macris. Sisipyla loves the princess Iphigeneia and would give her own life for her, while Macris longs to possess her, not just for her beauty, but because she’d be a trophy to his ambition and glory. By using the bit players to tell the story, it allows the author to play out the undercurrents of the story, those details the powerful ignore and the common man finds to be a sensitive touch. In doing so, the reader can see the emperor and his new clothes.

In The Songs of the Kings, we are treated to a suspenseful story and a thought-provoking look at the men who become heroes. In the quest for power and glory, how far will a man go to be included in the songs of the kings? For Agamemnon, it’s a lesson he learns too late. For us, though, we have the deliciousness of this fine novel to marvel at his folly.

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