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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

Review: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

By on August 21, 2010

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Win a copy of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Enter by midnight EDT 8/22/2010.

It’s been a while since I read a novel that truly fit the old cliche “page turner.” I can truly say, though, that I only ever put my copy of Gates of Fire down because of the necessities of life. It gripped me from page one and did not let go.

Gates of Fire is so much more than an attempt to recreate the legendary last stand of a handful of Spartan warriors against multitudes of Persian invaders, though it accomplishes that task beautifully. It also manages to serve as a philosophical treatise on courage, brotherhood, sacrifice, dedication, love, and a host of other themes without ever becoming pedantic or boring.

As his storytelling device, Steven Pressfield employs a fictional Spartan squire who, though mortally wounded, survives the slaughter at the “hot gates” and falls into the hands of the Persians. He is brought before king Xerxes, who commands the squire Xeo to educate the king on the nature and background of these soldiers who managed to hold off his world-conquering troops for three days. Xeo agrees, but only if he can tell the tale as “the muse” leads him. The court historian records his words verbatim, and thus we have the text of the book before us.

This narrative device allows Pressfield to give us moving and deeply personal insights into the Spartan culture and how it produced these men (and women) of great valor. He humanizes Sparta for us, digging beneath the stereotype of cold, heartless killing machines. One of my favorite aspects is his highlighting of the critical role women played in the deliverance of their homeland.

One of the central questions of the novel is, “What is the opposite of fear?” In a campfire talk with some youthful warriors, an old veteran raises this question. He tells them it can’t be “fearlessness,” which is just a non-thing; it must be something positive. When this warrior finally discloses his discovery of the answer, at the climax of the epic battle, you have the true theme of the novel. I’ll only say that it is a theme that can be fully embraced and appreciated by even pacifists, such as myself. Though this novel takes one into the brutal realities of war, it is about so much more than that. It is about what it means to be truly human; to be human in ways even the gods can never know.

(Disclosure: a free copy of this book was provided to me by the author’s publicist.)

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