Our popular culture took a special interest into the battle of Thermopylae in 2006 when the film 300 was released. The battle itself, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors and their allies, is referenced in a variety of settings, including religious. We stand in awe of the Spartan Dienekes who, once being told the Persians' archers' arrows would blot out the sun, said: "So much the better. We shall fight in the shade." Steven Pressfield, in his book Gates of Fire, has taken this incredible historical event and written an incredible historical novel to showcase what courage, honor, bravery, and the brutality of war looks like.
Gates of Fire is quite possibly the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read. Yet, I would not classify the book as gratuitous. I realize that may seem incongruous, but I maintain that the violence on display in this book serves a bigger purpose than violence for violence's sake. The sword and sandal warfare of the Spartans' era was a face-to-face, nose-to-nose bloodbath. Pressfield attempts and largely succeeds in making the violence in this book as intimate, for lack of a better word, to the reader as it is for the characters. I would practically exhale in relief when a battle scene would come to its bloody end. Gates of Fire is not for those readers who are uncomfortable with violence and all of its inevitable gory consequences.
Having said all of that, a bloody and violent story which is nothing but that is hardly worth reading, if at all. Pressfield has not only re-created military situations with convincing adroitness, he has also populated those situations, and especially the build up to them, with genuine and memorable characters. In fact, a large part of the book, the majority really, is not about warfare but the lead up to it. It reminded me of The Two Towers film adaptation; the film takes an inordinate amount of time building up to the monumental conflict you have paid money to see. That build up, that tension, is what makes the final showdown so compelling and engrossing. What this provides are the emotional crescendos and the heartbreaking realities of war. There are some genuinely emotional moments in this book. In the end, even the stoicism of the Spartans cannot contain the unbridled outcry of a broken heart. Like other tales of war, such as the Lone Survivor, Gates of Fire shows how men behave when placed in the most terrible of situations, both the best and worst of mankind.
Perhaps most interesting to me was the book's examination of the Spartan worldview, the ethos of its people. Modern nations and cultures boast a much more prolonged quantity of life, but I believe the quality of that life is highly debatable. Sparta, although existing with and embracing rules of conduct and expectations of lifestyle most, including myself, would bristle at, could teach us something about embracing the most important ideas. Freedom, honor, courage. It goes without saying that these ideals aren't the ultimate goals of millennials; rather, our world thrives on security, ease of lifestyle, and entitlements. Again, Sparta is on one hand an extreme, and we largely live in another extreme, but I believe Gates of Fire can teach us something about ourselves and how to find a better balance.
Gates of Fire is an excellent book; it's one of the finest historical novels I have read in a long, long time. It's brutal and bloody and not meant for readers who are uncomfortable with such violence. Like some of the most memorable works of non-fiction relating to war and mankind's inveterate need to engage in it, I will not soon forget Gates of Fire, if at all.
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris