Saturday, March 11, 2017

Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven


Opening Passage:

The child was wakened by the knotting of the snake's coils about his waist. For a moment he was frightened; it had squeezed his breathing, and given him a bad dream. But as soon as he was awake, he knew what it was, and pushed his two hands inside the coil. It shifted; the strong band under his back bunched tightly, then grew thin. The head slid up his shoulder along his neck, and he felt close to his ear the flickering tongue. (p.1)

Summary: Fire from Heaven is in essence a novelization of the first few pages of Plutarch's Life of Alexander, which is almost the only surviving source we have for Alexander's life prior to his accession to the Macedonian throne. While it engages in some novelistic license and occasionally draws on other sources, the basic outlines of the story do not involve in any serious deviations from Plutarch's account. This serves, I think, as a defense, at least for this book, against a criticism occasionally raised against Renault's Alexander, that he is overly romanticized. As Plutarch tells us right off in his account of Alexander, he is writing not a History but a Life, and the latter is a genre that is concerned not with outward glory but with those things that manifest virtue or vice, reveal character, or serve as signs of the souls of men. Renault is not starting with a historical account and romanticizing it. The Alexander Renault has to work with in the beginning is idealized -- not romanticized, exactly, but put forward as a sort of Type of Man. What she is doing is trying to capture this Type in a realistic way, and this she manages, by and large, to do.

Renault's Alexander is a boy caught between his mother Olympias and his father Philip, the former being a jealous schemer and the latter being a blundering soldier. At times the relationship is oedipal, and we do find in Renault that occasional vice of mid-twentieth-century novels, in which psychoanalytic allusion substitutes for real characterization; it is especially noticeable in the early stages of the book. However, as Alexander matures, this slowly falls away and we get something more like real characterization -- although Alexander is always to some extent inscrutable, even to his closest friends like Hephaistion. Philip actually comes across rather sympathetically, and Olympias increasingly less so; but this is perhaps to some extent because we occasionally get Philip's viewpoint, and not Olympias's.

Throughout the work, vanity and self-importance, especially intellectual self-importance, are portrayed negatively; Aristotle, who gets the best treatment, is nonetheless regularly an object of affectionate fun, and Demosthenes is treated mercilessly. But it is a story of Alexander the Great: heroic ambition is lauded throughout, as is self-giving loyalty and devotion.

Favorite Passage:

It was the time when the wild beasts mated in the woods. Aristotle was preparing a thesis on their coupling and the generation of their young. His pupils, instead of hunting, hid in the coverts and made notes. Harpalos and a friend of his amused themselves by inventing far-fetched procedures, carefully doctored with enough science to secure belief. The philosopher, who thought himself too useful to mankind to risk a chill crouching for hours on wet ground, thanked them warmly and wrote all of them down. (p. 198)

Recommendation: Recommended; it has many good points.


Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven, Pantheon Books (New York: 1969).

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