The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
HAND OF FIRE
Judith Starkston, Fireship Press, September 2014
It takes a brave author to tread in the footsteps of Homer. It takes an even braver author to retell part of the Illiad from the feminine point of view. Epics are a macho branch of literature and none more so than the Illiad, which is essentially a story about big men in bronze armour bashing each other. The love interest is mostly homosexual. Admittedly the Trojan War began with a quarrel about a woman, but that is how women mainly feature in the epic, as prizes of war.
Judith Starkston centres her story on one such prize, Briseis, a princess from one of Troy’s allied cities who is captured in a raid by Achilles. Her main claim to fame is that she caused Achilles to go into a sulk when his Commander-in-Chief, Agamemnon, claimed her for himself, thus sending Greek fortunes into sharp decline. In all Briseis gets about twelve lines in the Illiad. It is on this slender base that Starkson builds her principal protagonist.
But this is not her only or her greatest challenge. Nobody knows if the Trojan War actually happened or if so when. It was certainly long before Homer’s time. The Iliad is the earliest great work of historical fiction, but Homer’s readers (or more probably listeners) did not demand historical authenticity. Today HF authors are expected to have a detailed knowledge of the material culture of the age they are writing about. For Bronze Age Anatolia Homer is very little help and we have only limited archaeological evidence. Strarkston has gone to great lengths to familiarise herself with the archaeology of the Hittites, the civilisation to which the Trojans presumably belonged, and to check her text with the recognised authorities. If anything the research shows too well (the architecture and lay-out of each palace is described in detail), but this is a minor quibble.
A bigger challenge is Bronze Age psychology. They did not think like us. The modern novel is above all an effort after psychological realism, but how can we enter the minds of the Ancient Greek and Trojans? The big problem is the Gods, the principal ones and the host of minor deities. They constantly physically interfere in human affairs, even if invisibly or in disguise. They take part in battles, turning aside spears and halting chariots, and they mate with humans to breed demi-gods with super-human powers.
Today we have fantasy novels about super-heroes with ‘special powers’, but we do not believe in them. Did the Greeks believe in the demi-god Achilles, born of a mortal father and a divine mother? How can Starkston accommodate this fantasy figure in a realistic novel?
She sets about entering the Bronze Age mind-set by making Briseis a priestess. The local goddess she serves is a vain and capricious parent who needs to be constantly mollified to avert violent punishments for petty mistakes. This is a world not of divine justice but divine caprice.
This is a mind-set I can believe in and understand. I can understand that Bireis accepts Achilles as a demi-god without question but I have difficulty in accepting that myself, which is what I am asked to do. Nor can I fully accept that Briseis could fall in love with Achilles after he has killed her brothers. However, it is an interesting idea and it elevates Briseis above victim status. To help explain the paradox Achilles is interpreted a conscience stricken warrior with a feminine side, which I am not sure Homer intended. I am open to argument on this.
Starkston has attempted a difficult feat in re-interpreting an epic from a different age with very different attitudes to life for a modern audience in a modern literary form. It is a vividly told story and I enjoyed it and I think I understand the Trojan War the better for it. It has also sent me back to the Iliad which I had not read since I was at school.