My knowledge of this book came from reading a blogger’s take on the movie, “300“. I do not recall the site anymore but I do recall the blogger’s disappointment in the movie’s distance from historical facts. (As per another blog, “300” was supposed to be based on some comic book and was meant to be more of a visual treat rather than a factual account on the Battle of Thermopylae.) This book is one he expressly recommended as one of the best fiction novels on that famous battle as the events and descriptions thereof are well-researched and hold true to history.
Author : Steven Pressfield
First Publication Date : October 20, 1998
First Publisher : Doubleday
This Edition’s Publication Date : September 1999
This Edition’s Publisher : Bantam Books
No. of Pages : 460
ISBN : 0-553-58053-I
The Story :
After the Persian’s victory at the pass of Thermopylae, a Greek soldier is discovered as the sole survivor of that horrendous battle. At King Xerxes’ command, the man, Xeones, is spared and nursed as much as could be done for a man with grievous wounds. It is Xerxes’ desire to know his enemies whose paltry numbers have decimated a staggering multitude in his army. As much as his desire is so, it is also the Greek’s urgent need to tell the story to immortalize the men who valorously held the pass against insurmountable odds.
He begins his discourse with his life’s story, from a homeless boy of a conquered city to a helot in service to a Spartan master. Of Sparta he describes its military way of life, where self-discipline and subordination of the needs of one for the many are paramount virtues. Boys, as young as 12, are subjected to military training, a way of life that would make them into formidable warriors and therefore, real men, ready to defend their state for honor. Battle training does not merely mean molding superb physiques and extraordinary fighting prowess. There also exists the Spartan psychology of war in which battle philosophies are inculcated to create a strong foundation of selflessness and a state of mind that renounces fear in the face of death. This has made Sparta’s military might superior to all as their battle readiness is a product of complete physical, mental, and emotional endurance. Even Spartan women are physically fit and stoically ready to give up husbands and sons to defend Sparta.
Under the huge threat of the Persian invasion, Sparta rallies other Greek states to counter this dangerous intention. The Spartan king, Leonidas, selects 300 soldiers to march to Thermopylae to defend this narrow pass into Greece. These 300, along with their Greek allies totals a handful 7,000 against 2,000,000 Persian enemies.
Xeones’ narrative breathes life into the personalities behind this historically famous “last stand” and earns for the Hellenes, in particular Sparta, the respect of the enemy who are awed by Greek determination to defend their country to the last man.
The Review :
Few books on war may ever enthrall one as much as “Gates of Fire“, Steven Pressfield’s brilliantly executed story on the Battle of Thermopylae. The story is done with great mastery for depicting human nature, Spartan culture and psychology, and ancient Greek warfare and battle tactics.
Although war and the violence of hand-to-hand combat may be alien to most of us, Pressfield makes the sights, smells, sounds, and emotional experiences of the fight so palpable, it intrudes the comfort of one’s reading chair. One can feel the grit, the determination, the almost inhuman physical and mental endurance, and the nobility of it all.
The characterization is very good. His ancient warriors do put a new dimension on the concept of “real men”. Aside from pure brawn and unimaginable stamina, they are able to transcend basic human nature in the face of insuperable odds. One may be drawn to how humanly vulnerable the characters are to many weaknessees, like fear, the desire for self preservation, etc. and be filled with admiration for their ability to rise above themselves for the good of the many.
Pressfield’s writing has a poetic quality, rich in metaphors and analogy, which greatly enhances the descriptive style of his work.
“…Instead each warrior’s lungs pumped only for breath; chests heaved like foundry bellows, sweat coursed into the ground in runnels, while the sound which arose from the throats of the contending masses was like nothing so much as a myriad quarrymen, each harnessed to the twined rope of the sled, groaning and straining to drag some massive stone across the resisting earth. ” — p. 297
What may please one more is that although “Gates of Fire” is a fictional novel, it is , I believe, laboriously researched and therefore historically accurate. The author’s knowledge of the battle and characters seem so intimate as to make one believe he had been there himself. What also makes the book more special is the fact that it also deals with interesting Spartan psychology and philosophy of war:
“War not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and the preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in a selfless love, eradicating in the crucible all which is base and ignoble. There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods. Do not despise war….do not delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.” — p.157
“How does one conquer fear of death, the most primordial of terrors….Dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion. Each hound knows its place. He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below. Fear conquers fear. This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear: that of dishonor. Of exclusion from the pack.” — p.265
“Habit will be your champion. When you train the mind to think one way and one way only, when you refuse to allow it to think in another, that will produce great strength in battle. — p. 159
The excerpts above may appear verbose or too lofty for some when taken as is, but as part of the book it doesn’t seem so. Steven Pressfield manages to balance his writing to create a wonderful reading experience of a novel — a remarkably inspirational gem I think few of its genre can equal.
To Read Or Not To Read :
Definitely, a must read! I must say this is one of the best “battle books” I’ve ever come across. It’s a testosterone-laden narrative full of blood, guts, muscle, and masculine stoicism; yet it is poignant too for the tremendous sacrifice, honor, and virtues all upheld in this story as well.
For budding ancient war enthusiasts, you will be thrilled by the accurate depiction of battle techniques, strategies, rigorous training methods and the unwavering mindset one must have to become truly Spartan.
Somehow it is hard to believe that men with such physical and mental endurance such as these Spartan warriors ever existed. But the mind-boggling part is that they did! The human mind and body is actually capable of so much more than what we believe so.
Imagine tearing your hamstring (agonizing enough in itself) and still getting up to fight, using tremendous leg power to push against a human enemy wall, pushing back in return, all the while carrying a spear and a massive oak and bronze shield. This you should do without surrendering to pain and self-pity, for hours on end with hardly a respite for food and water. Sounds ridiculously incredible? Yet this could have been what a warrior must have endured to keep the phalanx intact:
“…I could see the warrior’s feet, at first churning in disarray for purchase on the blood and gore-beslimed earth, now settle into a unison, a grinding relentless cadence….With a heave, the warriors’ shield-side foot pressed forward, bows-on to the enemy; now the shield-side foot planted at a ninety-degree angle, dug into the mud; the arch sank as every stone of the man’s weight found purchase upon the insole, and, with left shoulder planted into the inner bowl of the shield whose broad outer surface was pressed into the back of the comrade before him, he summoned all force of tissue and tendon to surge and heave upon the beat. Like ranked oarsmen straining upon the shaft of a single oar, the unified push of the men’s exertions propelled the ship of the phalanx forward into the tide of the enemy. “— pp. 296 – 297
Well, if such “supermen” existed before, one may come to think : how come we don’t make many of them anymore? Tee Hee! 😉
As An Aside :
It is interesting to note : “‘Gates of Fire‘ is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.” — Wikipedia
It has been floating around that this movie will be adapted to cinema. However, this project is still in development with no particular date in sight. Don’t be lazy though and wait for the movie. Pick up this book; it’ll be well worth your time.
In A Nutshell :
Steven Pressfield is now on my personal list of fave authors for “Gates Of Fire“, a very beautifully written graphical novel which showcases the author’s superior writing talent. This is one of those books you can read again and again through the years. Definitely a keeper and a treasure on my shelf.
My Mark : Excellent; Superb!