Sunday, February 7, 2010

One man’s mania – Virtues of War

Good old Alexander the Great, one of those historical figures that fascinates and torments historians. Was he a great leader, a mad man, or some combination of the two? Films and books have struggled with the man and his exploits, each tackling a different angle on him. Most recently I ending up reading “Virtues of War” by Stephen Pressfield.

The first thing Pressfield had to do was figure out how to approach Alexander. He doesn’t shy away at all. The book is written in the First Person point of view, so right off the bat you are put into Alexander’s mind. I thought this was a bold and unexpected movie. It presumes a bit that the author understands Alexander enough to give us an accurate picture

The story starts in India with Alexander facing what could be his greatest challenge. Not only is a vast army arrayed against him, but his men are losing faith in Alexander’s mission and without their fighting spirit Alexander fears that he may be unable to grasp victory. He brings in one of the young squires to see if the boy can give him a new perspective. Of course he has to bring the squire up to speed, and in the process he brings the readers up to speed as well.

This is Alexander’s history according to Alexander, and in a way it provides us with a view of his accomplishments and why he is so driven. It’s a character study with lots of battle scenes, plotting and of course dealing with the problems of a world conqueror. We come to understand Alexander’s drive, or at least see why he is so driven

Pressfield gives Alexander a belief in dualism of self. There is Alexander the friend and companion. Then there is Alexander the monster – a thing driven by the desire for glory and desire for the unobtainable. The two are often one being, but Alexander fears the monster inside him and what it will drive him to do. But this isn’t a split personality. It is part of Alexander, something he can not forget or ignore.

The book was a very good read. It provided a very interesting and believable view of Alexander the Great. It also gave a pretty interesting view of the most famous battle Alexander waged. Historians don’t’ really understand how some ancient warfare worked, but Pressfield does a great job of throwing you into the action and making is accessible and entertaining. Definitely a recommendation for anyone interested in Alexander or ancient battle campaigns.

What did you think of “Virtues of War”? What is the best version of Alexander the Great’s story you’ve encountered? Is there another way to approach the story of historical figure who is a real puzzle?

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