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Three Great Books Full of Greeks

When I was a kid, I loved Greek mythology more than anything. I couldn’t get enough. I knew all the gods and demigods. I knew the names of the Muses. I knew about Narcissus, Echo, and how Zeus could somehow seduce women after turning into a swan. I thought that was dumb then. Still do, but we’re not here to talk about sultry swan-men.

I can’t remember half of it now, but man those were fun times. Once I made a cardboard lightning bolt just to play Zeus. It didn’t work very well.

I’ve read a couple of books in the last year that are packed with Greeks. Continue onwards. I have such tales to tell you.

Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield

Did you see 300? If so, your first task is to forget all about it and go read Gates of Fire. It’s about the battle of Thermopylae. There are no guitar solos, there’s no slow-motion, no giant Persian rulers that look like Boy George after a glitter fight, and no fat monsters with blades for arms.

What you do get is one of the most moving, exciting books out there. I’ve always been fascinated with Spartan ideals, Spartan training, Spartan toughness. Men who didn’t compromise. Most men I know wonder how they might have stacked up against the warriors of the past.

Well, Pressfield is an amazing writer and meticulous researcher. According to Gates of Fire, most of us would not stack up so well, no matter how macho we think we are. Adam Glass would be an exception. He would have been right at home at the Hot Gates.

This book is an adventure story and history lesson. It you’re into philosophy, you’ll get some of that as well. Honor and elegance. Blood and guts. Lots of tough guys. And it’s a page turner.

If you like this, go on to Tides of War, also by Pressfield. Awesome.

The Iliad

The Iliad is Homer’s epic tale about the battle of Troy. I’m not a big fan of poetry, but Homer suits me just fine, never mind that this is a poem with hundreds and hundreds of pages.

If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it enough. I would also urge you to start with the translation by Robert Fagles. It’s my favorite so far.

The Iliad is the ultimate macho book. Just to give you an example, during the many battles, people rarely just “die.” More commonly, the “soul and life were ripped out of him as the blackness swirled down in a rage.”

Yes.

The Iliad has spawned a lot of imitators and tributes. None are better, in my opinion, than…

Ilium by Dan Simmons

For sheer imaginative scope, nobody impresses me like Dan Simmons. He thinks of stories that nobody else could conceive of, let alone write. The Terror was about a bunch of explorers trapped on the ice in the Arctic while some giant beastie keeps showing up to grab them. It would have been nonsense in anyone else’s hands. I wrote a book review of The Terror if you’re curious.

Ilium is about…well, let’s see. There’s really no way to make it sound normal, so here we go.

There are a bunch of Greek Gods living on Mars, far in the future.  They go by the names of the original Greek Gods, but they’re very advanced machines. They spend their time endlessly recreating the battles from The Iliad on Mars.

They resurrect a twentieth century English Professor who is very familiar with Homer. They stick him on the periphery of the battles and ask him to report discrepancies between Homer’s text and the battles he is actually seeing.

If that’s not weird enough, he winds up fooling around with Aphrodite, who wants him to kill Athena, and it only gets stranger. All the familiar faces are there: Achilles, Zeus, etc. When I started reading Ilium, I immediately became that ten year old reading about the labors of Hercules all over again.

There is a LOT more going on in Ilium, but I can’t even begin to describe it. Chances are, you’re already either intrigued or saying, “Nope, I’m outta here.” Again, it would have been nonsense in anyone else’s hands.

And that’s that. In case you’ve been sitting around thinking “I want to read some books with Greeks in them but just don’t know what to do,” your distress reached my big ears and I have delivered you from madness.

You’re welcome.

Josh

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  • Heather April 22, 2010, 7:17 am

    Talk about synchronicity (the concept, not the song, album, or tour from ’85-ish)! I have a group of 9th grade English students in here, doing research on GREEK MYTHOLOGY! I am going to print your post and share it with their teacher so that she may share it with them! And now I’ve got that Police song stuck in my head, but that’s ok! That was one of the few songs on the Synchronicity album that didn’t SUCK!

    “With one breath, with one flow, you will know. . . synchronicity.” ♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫

    • Josh Hanagarne April 22, 2010, 10:57 am

      Let me know what she thinks.

      • Heather April 22, 2010, 11:15 am

        I think you’re about to get some younger fans! You better get ready, they’ll want homework help!

  • ami April 22, 2010, 9:03 am

    Perfect – thanks for the recs.

    I think I read the Iliad (definitely the Odyssey) when I was in 5th or 6th grade, but I might not be remembering correctly. As #1 Son is now in 5th grade, I’m wondering – do you think it’s appropriate material for an 11 y.o. boy who reads at a middle school level? (I’m leaning towards yes but would love your opinion)

    • ami April 22, 2010, 9:05 am

      oops, forgot to mention. Son ADORES Greek and Roman mythology (and Norse and whatever else he can get his hands on)

      • Josh Hanagarne April 22, 2010, 10:55 am

        I’m also a huge fan of Norse mythology. Can’t beat Thor and Odin.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 22, 2010, 10:57 am

      I would say so, but I’d investigate it for yourself. The violence is mentioned, but rarely graphic. I mean, you might read that “a spear went through his chest,” and then you get the “soul ripped out of his body” type of stuff, but the violence is pretty tame compared to most of what he could read these days. It honestly reminds me of certain verses in the Bible. 100 zillion people can die in a couple of sentences, but it doesn’t really linger on any of them.

  • Yusuf April 22, 2010, 1:35 pm

    Josh, have you read the War of Art by Pressfield? If so, do you recommend it? I wondered if it had a similar theme as “Lynchpin?”

  • Dave Doolin April 23, 2010, 8:18 pm

    Ilium was pretty good. Simmons occasionally gets a little long winded for me (which is saying a lot because I have a high threshhold). I enjoyed it quite a bit, not quite enough to pick up Olympos. Although now that you mention it, I might just do that sooner than later.

    For the straight scoop, Edith Hamilton!

  • Professor Beej May 19, 2010, 10:59 pm

    I am seriously amazed I have never read Ilium before. To Amazon I go right now and seek out a Kindle edition!

  • Brent Partner November 25, 2010, 3:46 pm

    You might like “Lion of Macedon” and “Dark Prince” by David Gemmell which is basically a retelling of the Alexander the Great tale in a dark magical sort of vein … very compelling reading. He also did a trilogy (just before he died) based on the Trojan War which was probably not quite as good but still well worth reading. I particularly liked his take on the Trojan Horse which is something I often wondered when applying a historians eyes over The Aeneid …