Gillian Philip was born in Glasgow, lived for 12 years in Barbados and now lives in the north of Scotland with her husband, eight-year-old twins, one labrador, two sociopathic cats and four nervous fish. She has been writing all her life, but has also worked as a record store assistant, theatre usherette, barmaid, sales rep, political assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and as a singer in an Irish bar in Barbados. In 2001, when her children were born and she moved back to Scotland, she became a full-time writer of Young Adult fiction. Her books include Bad Faith, Crossing The Line, Life of the Party, Sea Fever and (for Hothouse Fiction under the name Gabriella Poole) the Darke Academy teen horror series. Gillian contributes to the children's authors' blog An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Below she writes about Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven.
Gillian Philip on Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
I bought my copy of the Alexander trilogy in a small second-hand bookshop in the Caribbean. It was in the days before Amazon and I was desperate for good books, and I think I got the lot for six dollars; they still smell of that bookshop, all bookworm and cockroaches and dust. One day I'd like the Folio Society to publish a touchable, smellable three-volume box set that I can cherish, but even if and when they do, I'll never get rid of these. I read more as an expat than I ever have before or since, but these were the books I fell in love with.
I was bewitched instantly, by the opening lines, as the four-year-old Alexander is woken by the snake he thinks is his mother's own Glaukos:
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.
As his mother's household sleeps, and he hears distantly the singing and carousing of the men in the Hall, he slips into her room, which is 'breathing all over with secret life... the flame of the lamp breathed too'; he smells its 'close scents of bath-oil, incense and musk... of her body and her hair.' It's not description, it's immersion in an ancient world that makes you wonder if Renault owned a time machine.
Mary Renault originally wrote Fire From Heaven as a stand-alone book. Alexander was an unfashionable choice of subject, generally viewed as a warmongering tyrant, and in a bolshie way she became, says her biographer David Sweetman, 'as possessive of [Alexander] as if he were a son to be shielded from unsympathetic neighbours', making Fire From Heaven 'almost a love letter to the boy hero'.
I've seen the Alexander books criticized for just this, but I don't get it: to me Alexander is no lofty inhuman god-figure, despite the title. You live with him, breathe with him, feel with him. That he's a towering inspiration (despite his small physical stature) doesn't make him less human and vulnerable, and that's the sublime trick Renault pulls off. His ability and ambition are integral parts of his humanity and instead of downplaying them, she celebrates them.
Something of Renault's attitude is revealed in a letter to a friend after she has heard the Apollo space mission condemned as a waste of money: 'which is reasonable in a way; but I think humanity desperately needs to know there are men capable of this transcendent courage, determination, character and skill.' There's a moment when I believe I can hear the author speaking through Epikrates, Alexander's music tutor: 'People who have earned no pride in themselves, are content to be proud of their cities through other men. The end will be that the city has nothing left for pride, except the dead, who were proud less easily...'
In some ways the book feels timeless. Alexander's feuding parents, tearing him between them, could be of any era; it is 'a pain he had known since birth'. ('They claim to love you,' says Hephaistion at one point, furious at the grief they cause Alexander, 'and they eat you raw.'). Alexander is a jealous child, feeling towards his new baby sister as many children do: 'perhaps she would die. Babies often did' (but it doesn't stop him growing distantly fond of her). And any mother of a son can relate to Olympias's pride and furious terror at losing him to manhood. He has the inquisitiveness, the ridiculous bravery and bravado of any small boy, yet when he curls into his mother's body, you feel a great twinge of fellow-feeling with brutal, barbaric, sorcerous Olympias. Anyone who's had a troublesome boy acting out at school would recognize Alexander's silent but spirited rebellion, his hatred of any restriction on his curiosity. He wants to read the entire Iliad for its story, not a paragraph chosen by the inflexible Leonidas for its syntax. Resentfully he submits to Leonidas's tutoring, but his mind remains his own. He's a little boy (at the start of the book), with a little boy's mad, overblown, romantic dreams, but we know the difference is that he'll achieve them.
Fire From Heaven is told in the omniscient third person, and Alexander is the sun around which his overlapping worlds revolve: father, mother, tutors, companions. But he's no distant shimmering demigod, and his common humanity is, ironically, much of what makes him special and unique. Renault is explicit about what makes him the conqueror he becomes: not brute force, but his complete loyalty to and identification with his men. He speaks to them in the rough Macedonian tongue his father has tried to disown; he has known their names since he was small enough to hide behind their shields as he escaped from his nurse.
His pain and his mistakes, buried deep under his skin, are fully part of him. He's cunning, clever and sometimes ruthless; he learns quickly from his errors; he's frequently kind, and unremittingly loyal and honourable.
But there's no anachronistic attempt to impose modern mores on Alexander. He believes the gods talk to him, and he talks back; he takes it as understood that he must kill his boar and his man; he knows war is grim and horrific but not shameful. The description of his first kill in his first battle is brusque and truthful and makes no concessions about the difference between Alexander's dreams and the brutal reality - but Alexander knows what has to be done, and he does it. Just like the Iliad, the book brings alive, along with its horrors, the addictive thrill and glamour of war for many of the men who fight it. Not that this is macho, posturing, straight-to-DVD soldiering: love is a great part of the book. Alexander's beloved Hephaistion is Patroklos to his Achilles.
To me, Fire From Heaven and its characters are a perfect blend of timeless human nature and the ferocious strangeness of another era. The book ends as Alexander becomes king, when his father Philip is assassinated (possibly on the orders of Olympias). But even as she was writing it, Renault had decided it must have a sequel.
The voice of the second book is very different. The Persian Boy is told in the first person by the eponymous Bagoas, the eunuch Alexander comes to love, and who loves him with utter devotion. It could be said to represent how Alexander came to love the Persian world he conquered, and how he overcame Persian mistrust and prejudice to inspire love and admiration in return. But Bagoas is no symbol: he's a living, breathing creation, and The Persian Boy, as well as being an account of Alexander's obsessive conquests, is a hugely touching and sensuous love story.
All three books are full of empathy, imagination and humanity - Funeral Games too, but I like it less: not that it isn't wonderful, but it suffers from the inevitable, massive absence of Alexander. Of course his very absence is a huge presence, the catalyst for scheming, bloodshed and violence as his empire collapses. But after his vibrant company in the first two books, that Alexander-shaped gap just isn't enough for me. Why these books were never filmed, in place of Oliver Stone's turgid biopic, is a mystery to me.
Having said that Alexander is the most recognizable of young, wild and stroppy boys, I must say it was my daughter who got his name. I chose her middle name, Alexandra, for a hungry, hospitalized baby who was struggling to eat. Small but tough, she chose to get better, and to become the unnervingly strong-willed girl she is today. I couldn't imagine a better namesake for her.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]