Review Article by Richard Blake
Sword of Marathon
By Jack England
Published August 2012, £7.99 pb, £2.99 Kindle
ISBN: 978 14781
The hero of this novel is a proto-Englishman (England itself will not exist for another thousand years) of great intelligence and beauty who settles in Greece. He begins telling his story in extreme old age, and, though aged, nearly has to kill someone in the first chapter. Much of the novel takes place in Athens. However, anyone who thinks the author has been influenced by my own Ghosts of Athens will be mistaken.
Jack told me he was writing Sword of Marathon in May 2011, when we were both attending a conference in Bodrum. I had just finished Ghosts of Athens, though it would not be published until August 2012. By then, Jack had finished Sword of Marathon, and was working on a sequel. There is a similarity between our novels, but I do swear that neither of us could have had any influence on the other. This really is one of those times when great minds have thought alike.
The story begins when Luke and his brother Hal are on a trading mission and are captured by nomadic and more than usually demented barbarians. Through a series of exciting and well-paced adventures, they arrive in Athens in 490, just when Darius of Persia has finally decided to have his revenge on a city that has not only resisted his invitation to accept him as overlord, but has consistently made trouble along the western fringes of the greatest empire that has existed.
Embraced by the Athenians as one of their own, Luke plays a key part in the victorious defence of Greece against the first Persian assault, and ends the story covered in well-deserved glory.
Rather than explain in detail what I like about the novel, let me quote this passage from when Luke and Hal are taken prisoner by the barbarians:
The horsemen dismounted noisily at a large circular wicker hut, then pulled the two boys off their horse; they unroped Luke and Hal from each other, then bound each boy’s hands tightly behind his back, before pushing them into the hut.
A stench of rotting entrails filled the space, from an indeterminate set of slaughtered beasts. A wide circular pit, twelve feet across, with vertical sides, occupied most of the space inside the hut, with a post standing beside its lip, which had a long length of rope coiled around it.
Instead of using the rope, the Gerroians threw both boys into the pit together, where they fell and splashed into five feet of stinking water, twisting knees and ankles when their feet crashed into mud at the pit’s bottom. Luke could hear laughter and mutual back slaps amongst the men above. The group of horse-riding captors left the hut. From the floor of the pit, to the lip at the top, was at least ten feet above the surface of the water. This was an old well, thought Luke, but clearly not used for drinking water.
The last man out rattled shut the hut’s flimsy door, then the sound of happy men receded. Ordinary sounds of town life re-filled the hut through the wicker walls; chickens squawked, dogs barked, and domestic arguments all flowed in, along with the smells of cooked meat and wood smoke.
In the bottom of the pit the boys stood up and could feel hard objects in the putrid mud under their feet. Almost drowning himself, and at risk of dislocating his shoulders, Luke managed to bring his hands around to his front.
He delved into the stinking mud with his hands and brought to the surface a human skull. The top had been sliced off and there were the telltale signs of a heavy axe blow, to mark the remains of what was left. This pit involved death; that much was clear. (p.18)
The author has done with this passage exactly what a competent writer does. He clearly imagines a situation, even down to the sounds of normality beyond the confines of its horror. He does this through the perceptions of his hero, leaving nothing to objective description.
Or take this:
…Miltiades spat up in the face of Hippias. Thick stinking phlegm dribbled down the former tyrant’s lips and dripped onto his purple silks, though Hippias stayed motionless.
“So you thought you would walk into Athens again with the same fucking plan your demented father lucked into all those years ago,” said Miltiades. “Did you think we would forget, you arrogant piece of dog shit? Did you think we would run from these fucking Persian bastards and these cock-sucking Median cuts?”…
Miltiades punched Hippias in the face and knocked out several loose blackened teeth, which created a putrid cloud of rotten breath, as bits of partially-digested meat and gristle came out with them. The teeth flew overboard, in a blood-and-spittle rain, mostly into the brackish lagoon water, though one rotten tooth fell onto the exposed sandbar that had trapped the trireme….(p.230)
This brings me to a complaint that I often face from my own readers. Why is it necessary to have all this foul language and graphic descriptions of violence? The answer is because this is how people often speak, and this is what they often do. People also have sex in ways that seem less than decorous to observers, and they go to the toilet, and they drink too much and throw up. Describing all this will not save a broken plot, but it is something that has a place in any novel that tries to put the reader into a world filled with real men and women. As for the further complaint that the specific words used may be anachronistic, and may sound more like Ray Winstone than the men whose smooth, marble busts have come down to us from classical antiquity – well, the answer is obvious. The convention is that what the author writes is a good translation into English from the original Greek. It would never do to have a character say: “A light came on in my head,” or “The temperature was dropping fast.” These are phrases that could only be used in a technological civilisation. But anything else, no matter how vulgar, is fair game for an historical novelist.
Oh, and there is also this, from Jahiz, an Arab writer of the ninth century:
Some people who affect asceticism and self denial are uneasy and embarrassed when cunt, cock and fucking are mentioned. But most men you find like that are without knowledge, honour, nobility or dignity.
What more to say? Well, I could say that I am jealous of Jack’s choice of period. My choice of early Byzantium is a good one. Contrary to the general view, this was an age of heroism and genius. The fight the Byzantines put up against the barbarians and Persians and Moslems saved Western civilisation. There are few stories more inspiring than the defeat of the Arabs outside the very walls of Constantinople in 678 and 717. At the same time, nothing compares with what the Athenians achieved a thousand years earlier.
Forget the Egyptians and the Jews. Forget what we are told about the ancient Indians and Chinese. Forget even the Romans. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
This is the world that Luke and Hal do their bit to save. The Greeks had to win at Marathon. They had to win at Salamis and Plataia. Anything else would have condemned humanity to more of the same. Everything I was brought up to think had been achieved at Trafalgar or the Battle of Britain really was achieved in those three battles. It is the most inspiring story that can be told. You need to be a wretched novelist not to catch something of its universal importance. And Jack England is a very fine novelist. He does not denigrate the Persians – Datis is a most interesting and even sympathetic character. Nor, as shown, does he fail to recognise the brutality of the Greeks. At the same time, he knows which side he is on in the war for civilisation.
So buy this book. Buy many copies, and given them to your friends and loved ones. And let us hope that the next instalment in Luke’s mission to save the human race will not be long delayed.