Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield(Doubleday, 1998 352 pages, $23.95)
Portraying the good human life is always hard, especially so in the modern world. We are not well situated to see the essential things, the virtues that make existence something more than mere animal survival followed by a meaningless death. That is why, it is often said, only the military and the Church can still appeal to people who know what life is really about.
But occasionally, someone finds a new way to restate the old truths. A splendid case in point that is both a good story and a vivid reminder of the highest things: Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. On the surface, this is a marvelous fictional retelling of how 300 Spartans, aided by a few allies, held off for almost a week the millions of Persians trying to invade Greece through the narrow pass at Thermopylae (in Greek, the “gates of fire” of the title). But Pressfield also makes this immortal story an occasion to demonstrate what we need in order to live full human and spiritual lives.
A large part of his tale has to do with men and the virtues of courage, selflessness and discipline by which men typically find their highest fulfillment in this world. Decades of feminist arguments have led us to believe that women, too, can practice the martial virtues, and there is some truth in this contention, as Pressfield will show. But there are human situations — the physical protection of family and home prominently among them — where sheer male grit is indispensable and noble. Pressfield not only gives the best fictional account of actual battle in the field since Homer, he subtly uncovers the human dynamics of men in close proximity to death.
The Spartans provide good material. They were well known in the ancient world as the most fearless warriors. Plato and, to a lesser extent, Aristotle admired their virtues because they preserved Greek liberty and, therefore, were, temporally speaking, the cradle in which were born and nourished the great Greek achievements in architecture, literature and philosophy.
In Pressfield's version, the Spartans have only one claim to fame. As King Leonidas tells his men on the battlefield at Thermopylae, archaeologists thousands of years later will find no ruins of great temples or splendid artifacts in Sparta. Athens, Corinth and the other great Greek cities will claim those honors. But Sparta produces men, so rare an achievement that, even without physical remains, they will never be forgotten wherever real civilization exists.
Pressfield gives an astonishing account of the Spartan training for war, how they not only drilled themselves in military maneuvers, but sought to overcome the universal fear of death and pain by exercises of the soul. Warriors were taught how to push beyond their normal limits and yet never to succumb to terror and unmanly rage against the enemy. Indeed, one of the signs that all is going well in the ranks is a certain lightness of spirit and rugged humor, a goal that, mutatis mutandis, may be found in all the great spiritual masters of the Catholic tradition.
But Pressfield does not neglect the Spartan women. In fact, in some ways they represent the deepest spiritual truths by which men and women alike act. In an astonishing scene, one woman describes a visit by a veiled goddess. (A Catholic senses in the account pre-Christian intuitions that resemble nothing so much as Marian apparitions.) When the girl prays, the goddess lets fall her veil: “what was revealed, the face beyond the veil, was nothing less than the reality which exists beneath the world of flesh. That higher, nobler creation which the gods know and we mortals are permitted to glimpse only in visions and transports. … Her face was beauty beyond beauty. The embodiments of truth as beauty. And it was human. So human it made the heart break with love and reverence and awe. I perceived without words that this alone was real which I beheld now, not the world we see beneath the sun. And more: that this beauty existed here, about us at every hour. Our eyes were just too blind to see it.”
A historian of religion might object that some Biblical elements are projected back into pagan experiences here. Be that as it may, the fictional lesson remains overwhelming: “I understood that our role as humans was to embody here, upon this shadowed and sorrow-bound side of the Veil, those qualities which arise from beyond and are the same on both sides, ever-sustaining, eternal, and divine.… Courage, selflessness, compassion and love.”
The character mocks herself as “cracked with religion. Like a woman.” But that is neither Pressfield's view, nor the Spartans'. At the end of the story, when Leonidas explains why he chose certain men for the suicide mission against the Persians, he denies that he did so because of individual valor, ability to fight together as a group, or any personal quality. Rather, he chose them because their women — mothers, widows, daughters — are heroic, and their heroism must be an example to others: “If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her.”
These brief notes can only begin to suggest the nobility and spiritual depth that Pressfield has embodied in Gates of Fire. They are, to be sure, pre-Christian forms, needing the fullness of revelation. But as grace builds on nature, they prepare our coming to a fuller understanding in ways that we desperately need to appreciate at our present moment in this country. If you read one novel this summer, read this.
Robert Royal, who is working on a book about 20th-century Catholic martyrs, writes from Washington, D.C.