to Book Reviews
Back to Cercles
Songs of the Kings
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2002.
£16.99, 245 pages, ISBN: 0241-13701-2.
University of Greenwich
The story of Iphigneneia in Aulis as told by Homer, Euripides, Racine
and Gluck, amongst others, is a story of ultimate sacrifice. Life for
duty, duty over love. Iphigeneia is sacrificed by her father Agamemnon
as the Greek army waits in that sad place, as Tennyson wrote,
which men called Aulis in those iron years. This, in return
for the lifting of the wind and a favourable journey to Troy. Gluck
gives the story a happy endingIphigeneia saved from sacrifice
and united with Achillesno doubt under the pressures of writing
for the sensibilities of the French Court. Im not sure how Marie
Antoinette would have felt watching Iphigeneia, an innocent girl, slain
for the good of a nation. This is indicative of the way myths and stories
are changed and used to suit their audience and the context in which
they are told.
In The Songs of the Kings, Barry Unsworth takes the story of
Iphegeneia and uses it to examine contemporary international politics,
the birth of nations, the use of language as a propaganda tool, mythologies,
history and the media. Unsworths characters are familiar names
from Greek mythology but here he puts his own spin on them. The fractured
and fractious Greek army are waiting at Aulis for the wind to let up.
Theyre a rag-tag army of different tribes, with different leaders,
all under Agamemnon their Commander-in-Chief. Agamemnon
is a ruler whose smile is too wide and goes on for too long and his
absolute power is largely symbolic. Such power brings an enormous responsibility
that others are only too willing to let Agamemnon bear and he knows
how difficult this is. Those with great power and responsibility are
also blamed for everything.
The real power, the power to create change and move events along belongs
to the arch spin doctor, Odysseus, for whom deceit quickened the
blood in his veins and who identifies the need for a significant
future event which unifies the army and which also, of course
consolidates his own position of power. Odysseus is literally and metaphorically
a wrestler who knows how to use the strength and weight of an
opponent to defeat and disable him. He is all things to all men,
someone whose accent does not place him and when asked where he
came from he merely gestured. Sometimes towards the mountains, sometimes
toward the sea.
Truth and language are the first casualties of war. Language is, after
all, the means of controlling the truth. Agamemnons Chief Scribe,
Chasimenos, is the archetypal civil servant with a first-rate
vocabulary who uses words to disguise meanings, not illuminate
them. One of the major themes of The Song of the Kings is the
way stories and language are used in the propaganda battle where it
doesnt matter so much what happens as how events are perceived.
Unsworth deftly uses contemporary language in the context of this story
to make connections between then and now and it is part of the appeal
of this novel to pick up on some of his clever parallels. This makes
Unsworths novel especially prescient as we prepare for possible
war with Iraq and George W. Bush and the American government use language
in an attempt to manipulate people to their way of thinking. The so-called
war against terror gives leaders and governments the power
to act as they wish, all under the burden of responsibility
which leadership brings. When Unsworth writes that simplicity,
when it was passionate, would always win, he could be describing
President Bushs political philosophy.
During a debate on whether or not the war against Troy is justified,
Chasimenos is able to use civil-servant-speak to devastating effect:
If the cause of
the war is just, nothing that happens in the
pursuit of the war can make the war less just. The slaughter of
the innocent cannot detract from the justice of the cause, though
we may possibly call it an unjust effect of a just cause. If this
were not so, there would be no such thing as a just war, only a
necessary war, which is clearly absurd.
This sounds like a Donald Rumsfeld news conference and, like Rumsfeld,
uses a language and logic all of its own which makes it virtually
impossible for anyone else to argue against.
Agammemnon is offered a choice when the necessity for Iphigenias
sacrifice disappearsthe wind lifts. Agammemnon refuses to pull
back from the brink. Like the war with Troy itself, it has become
an unstoppable event. The British newspaper columnist, Victor Lewis-Smith,
wrote recently that Baghdad simply has to be bombed, otherwise
the February TV schedules will be wrecked. Chasimenos argues
his case in a way that is similarly comic and chilling. The sacrifice
must go ahead in the name of cost-effectiveness:
The knife, the altar, the road, these things have been brought into
being for one purpose only. They must be used for that purpose. To
divorce the product from the purpose for which it was produced undermines
the logic on which our civilization and all its values are based.
It makes nonsense of everything. It is unnatural, it is perverse,
I might even say it is inhuman.
Menelaus, brother of Agammemnon and husband of Helen, whose grievance
with Paris is the pretext for this war decides that the conflict has
a moral dimension. The Trojans, who are Asians, but they cant
help that, can they? need civilizing. This is Menelauss
mission. On the third of January this year President Bush
said that any war with Iraq would not be to conquer people, but to
In his efforts to persuade the King that his daughter must be sacrificed,
Odysseus uses language as his main weapon:
It was a question, really, of substituting terms, and in a way
Odysseus enjoyed the intellectual stimulus these encounters with the
King provided. On the one hand there was the desire for power and
loot, on the other the deliberate killing of an innocent. If you softened
the first by mixing in notions of public service, the need for living
space and wider markets to serve a growing population, and submerged
the second in the heavy burden of command, the problem ceased to exist,
they became the same thing, they blended into a single notion of painful
In a blinding flash of insight he comes to the conclusion that the
real battle is one of concepts, or ideologies:
It came to him like a shaft of light. Its all conceptual!
The driving force in human society was not greed or the lust for power,
as he had always thought, but the energy generated by juggling with
concepts, endlessly striving to make perceptions of reality agree
with them, to melt things together, iron out problems, harmonize warring
elements, what was the phrase he was looking for? Eliminate the
contradictions. They would rule the world who knew this and used
The pretexts and principles of war against Troy are undermined by
the personal ambition and vanity of the leaders involved in this enterprise,
not to mention their dreams of wealth and glory. They all want to
appear in the Songs and not only that, they want to control what is
sung about them. Its the Songs that matter because they are
what last after you have gone. Songs here become an amalgamation of
history, myth and the media and like all of those things Songs are
not fixed. The truths history shows us can be temporary
as successive people or generations revise it to suit their own ends.
The Singer himself is an outsider figure, a man with poor vision who
relies on what he is told. He has inherited the form and content of
his Songs from his father and then for what was new in the song
he relies on the prompting of the Gods. He embellishes,
exaggerates and is subject to personal and political and personal
The Songs are entertainment but they also have other means. Odysseus
recognises their power and the power of the Singer: One who
could distract the people in this way, turn them from discontent and
the breeding of revolt, was a very valuable instrument, especially
at a time like this. But instruments had to be controlled. Odysseus
and Chasimenos can attempt to influence the Songs that are sung, but
their influence only goes so far. The Singer is able to resist some
influences and succumb to others, because he knows that in the ebb
and flow of history, in the long life of a Song, it doesnt really
matter because it is possible for Songs to have an underground
life. It is important, as far as Odysseus is concerned, that
the Singer stays on message but, as spin doctors the world over know
only too well, there is nothing Singers hate more than being told
what to sing.
Calchas is a priest of Apollo and Agamemnons diviner.
It is Calchass job to make sense of the world by looking around
him and interpreting the abstract signs of the gods as they are sent
through nature; the behaviour of birds, the changes in the weather,
the dreams of the King. It is his ability or otherwise to interpret
these signs which determines his position. He learns that those in
power dont necessarily want the truth, but want signs to be
interpreted to fit into their pre-ordained way of seeing the truth.
He is like a modern day economic forecaster, looking at signs and
trying to predict future events.
For Calchas, songs are about what people already believe or
what it is wished they should believe. He knows that Odysseus
is not the Odysseus of the songs, that Greece is not the Greece of
the Songs and that as long as people can be made to do anything,
go from loving to killing and back again, as the Singer puts
it, that is what will win the day. As for Calchas himself he is interested
in meanings, not stories, and sees himself imprisoned
in the cage of meanings, it is his fate to see the complexities behind
the stories, but for no-one to care what he thinks. He cant
understand how it is that others can be so deceived by the Songs and
not see what often drives wars: People intent on war always
need a story and the singers always provide one. What it is really
about is gold and copper and cinnabar and jade and slaves and timber.
Odysseus is contemptuous of Calchas precisely because he spends
his time trying to establish what things mean. As such, Calchas
is doomed to inaction: The fate of the intellectual awaits him,
powerless to act, unable to make himself understood, lost in useless
speculation, says Odysseus who knows that meaning jumps
this way and that according to circumstances. Calchas is pulled
into the story in a way beyond his control, in a way that will alter
what people sing about him. In a perverse punishment for his forecasts
which displease the King, Agammemnon decides that it is Calchas who
must sacrifice Iphigeneia
Iphigeneia is a priestess of Artemis, Mother, Mistress of Animals,
Goddess of Childbirth, but this displeases Croton, the high
priest of Zeus, whose influence is on the ascendancy. Calchas recognises
another reason why Iphegeneia must be sacrificed: Crotons own
personal need to suppress the fecund female divinities, worshipped
of old, who disgusted and frightened him as did women uncontrolled
by men. The blood of Iphigeneia, priestess, princess and virgin
can mark the start of the bloody conflict. Crotons suppression
of the feminine brings war about. The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is to
be used to weaken Agammemnon but also to mollify and unite the army.
When Agammemnon concedes the life of his daughter he is more concerned
about what will be sung about him and becomes increasingly concerned
that the Song is his approved version. The army are carried along
by the Song but at the same time, nothing can be verified,
no-one dares question the official version of events.
Iphigeneia is assured, abrupt, clever, though she doesnt know
as much as she thinks she does. She lacks the creative imagination
of her slave girl Sisipyla who is her double and was given to her
as a present when they were both six years old (Iphigeneia having
declared their birthdays to be identical). Iphigeneia is also to be
a gift to whomever her father wishes her to marry and ultimately she
is to be a gift to the god Zeus when she is sacrificed to him. Unsworth
focuses on the attendants, servants and priests to tell the story.
They are the ones with true insight, if not symbolic power. Those
of high birth or great strength are more subjects than they know,
though those who serve them are often forced to keep quiet. When Iphigneia
tells Sisipyla the story of her family background she thinks the slave
girl wont know it; no singer is allowed to sing of this particular
royal scandal, but the story is well known and is the subject of gossip
by all. Official songs are not the only ones that get sung.
The Singer himself seems to stand separate from all this, he uses
the information given to him, but knows it is often not quite right.
His relationship with the truth is a delicate and complicated one.
When he tells the assembled army another story of a sacrifice made
to Zeus he has a moment of doubt, a moment when he speaks directly
to his listeners, a moment of insight: There is always another
story. But it is the stories told by the strong, the songs of the
kings, that are believed in the end.
Songs also teach us that history repeats itself: The same things
happen over and over, says Ipignenia, the story goes off
in all directions, but it is always the same story. The ending,
which I wont divulge, seems initially to prove the victory of
spin, a victory brought about when we start to use the language of
the civil servants and the politicians. But stories, or Songs, do
not stand still, they evolve and change as their uses evolve and change.
Unsworth is also a Singer, giving us his own version of the Song of
Iphigeneia, placing 21st century language and political concerns into
that context. He has his own reason for telling this story in the
way he wants it told, his own message to put across and this is where
Songs stand outside the political and the mundane, because long after
rulers and priests and civil servants and spin doctors are gone the
Songs remain. They may be the Songs of the Kings, but the Kings dont
write them and, as such, they can never be completely controlled.
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever
purpose is permitted without the permission of the
copyright owner. Please contact us before using any
material on this website.