Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

A Censure of Polyxena

July 27, 2015

  “Do not try to lecture me, foolish woman….I asked you to accompany us because I believed you had what it takes to be one of us. I was wrong. You will never be an Amazon.”      -Penthesilea

Initial Impressions

June 24, 2015

        He had flaming red hair, such as rarely seen.  -Polyxena on first seeing her nemesis, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. 

On Cassandra…

January 14, 2011

I want to comment on Polyxena’s clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.  I’ve stated in a previous blog how Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo in having the ability to foresee the future but never being believed by anyone.  He placed this curse on her because, as his priestess, she refused to give up her chastity for him (this makes one ponder what duties such functions incurred).  Cassandra is a pathetic figure, hounded by misfortune.  Not only was she never believed, but even held to be mad; she lost her lover, Coroebus, slain by Neoptolemus; she was raped by Ajax of Locris on the night Troy fell; she was taken by Agamemnon as a concubine, only to be then slain along with him by the king’s wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, in Mycenae (she predicts this fate to Polyxena).

Polyxena has an interesting relationship with Cassandra.  For much of my novel, she views her sister as unsociable and estranged from the rest of the family, but often seeks her out, wanting her advice, yet, true to Apollo’s curse, never taking it.  She tells us: I once made a record of her prophecies regarding coming events and was astonished to learn she had been correct in all her predictions.  In spite of this, I am ashamed to admit that I regularly disputed her warnings and even ignored them. They are alike in some ways; both exhibit an independent spirit and shun the womanly social gatherings in the palace.  Polyxena’s mother, Hecuba, speaks about this:  “My other disagreeable daughter.  You’re becoming more like her every day, Polyxena.  She hides from me in Apollo’s temple, you in your riding.  Why can’t you two behave as normal women?”

Cassandra warns Polyxena that Neoptolemus will prove her undoing, but she minimizes the threat in her thinking:  What else could place me in danger of Neoptolemus except the fall of the city itself.  Otherwise I obviously would be able to shun him.  But that would have horrible consequences for all of us, not just me.  This told me that, while I may be in danger, my peril was no worse than anyone else’s….Increasingly her admonitions seemed less and less relevant to my safety.  I do wish she was less dramatic in her presentations.

After Troy falls, and the Trojan women are held captive in their compound, Polyxena warms up to Cassandra, becoming close to her and admiring her toughness:  Cassandra remained as steady as a rock under our duress, never complaining or even lamenting our fate….I was drawn to her constancy, her poise significantly alleviating the fears dogging me, and spent a lot of time with her, seeking out the reassurance she instilled in me.

When Polyxena learns she is doomed and tells Cassandra about it, her sister says: “Have courage, Polyxena.  Accept what the fates have decreed for you.  Let the Greeks know the mettle Trojan women are made of.” This comforts Polyxena:  She pleased me with those words, instilling in me a resolve to bravely embrace the end in store for me.  I was not going to depart this world bemoaning my destiny, whimpering like a child, giving the Greeks the pleasure of seeing me stripped of my dignity, cowardly in my exhortations for mercy.  Once again, Cassandra gave me the strength of will to undergo the ordeal waiting for me.  I was truly indebted to her. In the end, Polyxena draws much of her courage from Cassandra.

Character Profile on Helen of Troy…

January 10, 2011

Helen, a name synonymous with Troy itself; ‘golden-haired Helen’, Homer describes her; the most beautiful woman in the world circa 1200 BCE, with ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.  I will briefly comment on how she is perceived by Polyxena.

When Polyxena first meets a squad of Amazons, a rather homely looking bunch, she makes an allusion to Helen: No ship would be launched for their sake.  And when she sees their commander, the stunningly beautiful Antiope, she again makes that allusion: Even Helen would have found serious competition in her. So Helen is the personification of beauty, the definitive standard by which it is compared and judged.

Is Polyxena envious of Helen’s beauty?  I do hint that she might be, but in a different sense.  By that I mean:  Helen is a generation older, in her mid-thirties; Polyxena, having a good self-image of her own, would not have regarded Helen a rival for suitors, seeing her as a family member, growing up with her, but she also would have become aware of how men reacted to her, observing their behavior in her presence.  This awareness is not often well received by Polyxena.  She makes inferences to that throughout my story; an example of this happens when she is being celebrated on her return to Troy: “What an extraordinary adventure you’ve had,” said Deiphobus, glancing more at Helen than me, tactless to be sure and quite annoying to me. Another illustration is when Helen must choose a new husband:  No raving beauty like Helen was going to avert the competition to possess her that would result out of her being single again.  An ordinary woman might have been left to her own devices….but never Helen, the most sought-after woman that ever lived.  Men craved her; they always had.   Most frustrating to Polyxena is how men always hold Helen blameless in things, even her father, Priam:  Despite this, he was ever cordial to Helen and never once alluded to her having contributed to the misery that plagued him.  She had that effect on men; they were endlessly willing to forgive her -for everything!- and sought to endear themselves to her.  That is how it has always been, from the very beginning to the present……Helen was absolved of any transgressions in the fate befalling Troy, the responsibility being continuously attributed to the gods instead.   In today’s language, we call that ‘sucking up to her’.

The power that Helen’s beauty wields over men is best demonstrated on the night Troy falls, when Polyxena describes the scene where Menelaus, the Spartan king Helen had forsaken, again meets her:

Menelaus strode up to Helen, bent on avenging the injury and humiliation she caused him.  He raised his sword -did I misjudge him?- and for an instant there, I thought he might indeed kill her.  But then she looked at him, tears streaming from her face, and if ever there was a sight to melt a man’s heart, it was that of Helen in grief, peering into his eyes, her lovely face at its pitiful best, amplifying her suffering.  He paused in his observation and then sheathed his weapon.  Helen’s future was secure.

My choice of words ‘pitiful best’ reveals Polyxena’s feelings.

My Anti-War Theme…

January 5, 2011

I would like to make some comments on a basic anti-war theme I strove for in writing my novel.  War is my story’s true antagonist, pitiless in inflicting its misery on the lives of everyone caught in its vicious grip.  I tried to portray the war in its starkest terms, without glory or redeeming virtues, exacting its toll on victims, irrespective of their complicity or innocence in its cause, but mainly on how its cruelty prevails in Polyxena’s life, inflicting grief and suffering on her.

Although having undergone deep sorrow over the loss of her brothers, especially Hector, it is not until Polyxena accompanies the Amazons on their operation against the Greek-occupied cities that she experiences the full gravity of war, up close and personal, in all its savage fury.  When she witnesses the execution of young Greek captives on orders of Penthesileia, the Amazon queen, after the battle at Otrea, she is horror-stricken, unable to conceal her shock -even angrily denouncing Penthesileia for it. “They surrendered to you!  They placed their lives in your keeping.  You owed them your protection…” To which Penthesileia storms back, “Do not try to lecture me, foolish woman….I asked you to accompany us because I believed you had what it takes to be one of us.  I was wrong.  You will never be an Amazon.” Polyxena then sulks in her tent, upset and suffering the worst misgivings over what she had done.

I did not know how to face Penthesileia after my emotional outburst and tried to rationalize my conduct as appropriate although now beset with much doubt over it.  The reason for the queen being here was to assist Troy in winning the war -what she did favored us- and I was out of line to condemn her actions and possibly jeopardize her helping us.  I was so appalled over the killings, the sheer cruelty of it, that I could not erase the image from my mind.

Like any good commander concerned about the welfare of the troops, Penthesileia comes into the tent and, after a heart to heart talk, accepts Polyxena back in her good graces. Polyxena next experiences an even bloodier battle at Pedasus, and her aversion begins to be supplanted by the grim realities war entails:

I also learned during this time that my outburst at Otrea over the fate of the captives was not as clear an issue as I then thought.  We were an army on the move and had no means by which we could hold prisoners, that is, without encumbering ourselves with burdens we could hardly afford.  We had no way of feeding them or even guarding them if we were to go into battle; I suppose we could have disarmed them and then let them go, but that guaranteed no security for us that they would not fight us again.  Penthesileia was right in censuring me; the matter was problematic at best….I hated war, for it imposed exceptions on us that contravened our better moral judgments, sacrificing these for the sake of the expediency that featured paramount under battlefield conditions……War is cruelty.  In its harshness, it reduces us to compassionless participants, stealing from us our benign tendencies, and hardening our nature to the savagery that defines it.

When she returns to Troy, Polyxena learns that all her efforts with the Amazons were for nothing.  Her father, Priam, could not implement his grand strategy because he had been deserted by one of his major allies; he tells her:  “Such are the fortunes of war, my dear. All the planning, the spying and scheming, the maneuverings, can disintegrate in an instant.” Polyxena becomes physically ill hearing this:

Everything we did was for absolutely nothing.  The battles we fought, the casualties we sustained, the slaughter of a thousand Greeks at Otrea, Penthesileia’s death, all for nothing…. Everything was a waste.  I felt myself getting sick.

As the siege at Troy continues, with one inconclusive battle after another, Polyxena grapples with the futility of it all.  After one particular costly engagement, she tells us:

I remained by the gate, looking out across the field, horror-struck at the extent of the slaughter that had taken place.  The dead were all about, littering the expanse in front of me, greater in number than in any battle the Amazons had fought while I was with them, and all for no gain.

She then thinks the unthinkable:

I found it incomprehensible how the leaders who decided to wage this war could still hold their units together after such an inconclusive bloodbath…..I would have expected, at some point, the warriors to have rebelled over the uselessness of their exertions.  The personal motivation of each of them had to suffer on that account.  Yet they persisted, allowing themselves to be guided into one disaster after another, with no reward in sight for any of them, facing no other reality than deferring the death that eventually might come to them.  Could it be that they now so personalized this war that no other priority existed for them except victory, even if it meant their death?  How could any sane person still have hopes of winning after the magnitude of today’s carnage?

What Polyxena is suggesting here is military heresy, questioning why soldiers do not mutiny when badly led (officers of every military in the world will cringe when reading this).  She also tells us of her continued difficulties in coping with the endless killing:

If ever I came to believe that eventually I would get accustomed to the slaughter and inure my sensibilities against its horrors, this notion was eclipsed every time the reality of the situation confronted me.  It always impacted with severity upon me, never easier the next time around, afflicting me with the same pain and dismay I felt after my first introduction to the cruelty of war.

These are sober contemplations; my novel was not written to be just another story; it was meant to be thought-provoking.

Protected: Neoptolemus, an envious villain.

January 3, 2011

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The Significance of Historical Love Stories

November 22, 2010

Love is the ingredient that transforms the ordinary to the great.  I think the appeal of  historical love stories is that they strike an accord with the reader in a way that makes the personages very real to us.  We can relate to them, most of us having experienced love in our lives.  Whether the stories are about the famed historical characters themselves, as with Antony and Cleopatra, or about regular lives caught up in epic backgrounds, as in Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago, love’s passion and endurance resonates with us, giving them a human quality than would otherwise not be the case.  It makes their stories timeless, appropriate for any age, because love is eternal.

My own personal favorite example of love’s impact on a great historical character is when Napoleon learns of Josephine’s death.  They had been divorced and out of contact with each other for years, but when the news comes to him, he locks himself up in his room, remaining in total seclusion for three days.  How can anyone who has a heart not be affected by that?  It speaks volumes of his character -and of the power of love.

Polyxena is a love story.

How Polyxena fits into Greek Mythology…

November 5, 2010

Iphigenia was sacrificed for the Greeks, signifying the beginning of the Trojan War with the launching of Greek ships. Polyxena is Iphigenia’s Trojan counterpart. Polyxena, however, was sacrificed in Troy, signifying the end of the war.

Polyxena was the youngest daughter of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba.

According to legend, Polyxena went with her brother Troilus to a fountain where he watered his horse. Achilles appeared and slew Troilus. When Achilles caught sight of Polyxena, he fell in love with her.

And this is the way in which love always seems to exist in the realm of mythology.  Love in Greek Mythology did not limit its effects to the mere mortal. The gods often played starring roles in these tales, and often showed their human traits like jealousy and fear. However, in the sad case of Polyxena, her love was fatal in that it was the folly of man, to be specific, that of Achilles, who either wanted her sacrificed so that she may marry him in the afterlife, or because he felt she had or would betray him.

In Seneca’s play Troades, Helen laments Polyxena’s fate:

Miserable Polyxena, whom Achilles commands be surrendered to him and to be sacrificed before his own ashes, so that he may be married in the Elysian fields.

In stories of Mythology, it is often the case that love leads to tragedy. One must wonder whether or not it was a sign of the times that brought such sadness and cynicism in their stories of love, or if the idea of love itself was a powerful as the myths assigned to them.


Many of these issues are explored in my novel Polyxena, where I do go in an flesh out how some of this played out, however tragic it came to be. I wonder what some of you think of stories such as these. Is love that powerful that it must be satisfied by sacrifice in the most literal of terms?

Until next week…