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The Songs of the Kings
Barry Unsworth
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2002.
£16.99, 245 pages, ISBN: 0241-13701-2.

Michael Langan
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 ending—Iphigeneia saved from sacrifice and united with Achilles—no doubt under the pressures of writing for the sensibilities of the French Court. I’m 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. Unsworth’s 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. They’re 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. Agamemnon’s 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 doesn’t 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 Unsworth’s 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 Bush’s 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 Iphigenia’s sacrifice disappears—the 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 can’t help that, can they?’ need ‘civilizing’. This is Menelaus’s ‘mission’. On the third of January this year President Bush said that any war with Iraq would not be to conquer people, but to ‘liberate’ them.

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 duty.

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. It’s 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 it.

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. It’s 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 influences.

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 doesn’t 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 Agamemnon’s ‘diviner.’ It is Calchas’s 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 don’t 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 can’t 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: Croton’s ‘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. Croton’s 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 doesn’t 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 won’t 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 won’t 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 don’t write them and, as such, they can never be completely controlled.

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