Friday, August 16, 2013

Writing the Great Ones


I recently finished The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon.  I’d been meaning to get to it for a while but just hadn’t managed until this summer. Any novel about ancient Greece or Alexander the Great ends up on my to-be-read list.  It’s a long list.

I’ve posted a review of the book which you can read on Goodreads or Amazon.

What I found interesting is that the book is not so much about Alexander; he has much more of a background role in the entire book.

Aristotle, the famous philosopher and tutor of the young Alexander, is the focus of this work.

This is a beautiful and immensely sad novel that gives us the author’s insights into this famous man of the ancient world, the successor of Plato and Socrates.

But, in reading this, I realized that I know very little of Aristotle.

I didn’t study philosophy in school, my tendencies being more toward ancient and medieval warfare. I know a lot more about Alexander than Aristotle.

And yet, most people with even a passing interest in history will know the name of Aristotle. Though he did not wage war or sack cities at the ends of the earth, he is legendary in his own way.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) wrote on an incredible range of subjects from metaphysics, the arts and rhetoric to government, politics, the natural sciences and much more. His work highly influenced the medieval Muslim and Christian worlds. Even today his teachings, I am told, greatly influence academia.

Alexander the Great
One might imagine such a man as Aristotle to be a Titan of the ancient world, tutor to a god.

But in The Golden Mean, that is not the case. Ms. Lyon does not present us with an intimidating figure. 

Rather, her Aristotle is frail, prone to fits of manic depression, a victim of his scientific mind and curiosity.

In this book, Aristotle is not what I expected.

And yet, isn’t that what is so great about historical fiction, that you can explore the unknown, the unpopular, in even the most famous of men?

In The Golden Mean, Aristotle and Alexander are talking about theatre and the use of dialogues to teach, the appeal of those methods. The character of Aristotle puts it nicely:

“You care more about the characters, about the outcomes of things. That’s the point of the literary arts, surely. You can convey ideas in an accessible way, and in a way that makes the reader or the viewer feel what is being told rather than just hear it.”

That’s a great observation by the author and one of the main reasons I believe good historical fiction is as important for teaching as entertaining, and should be a part of university reading lists.

Cover for The Golden Mean
I’ve had my own experiences in researching and writing about Alexander the Great, and that journey continues. As I mentioned in a previous post on that project, there are so many aspects to the character of Alexander that one cannot possibly get into every corner of his psyche. But you have to start digging somewhere.

I see these great men of history as fields in the landscape of history waiting to be excavated. Just as a single field might have revealed a fort in one excavation, so too can later digs reveal a civilian settlement, a coin hoard, or a burial, all of which tell a story about the place… just like a person.

Each novel about one of the great ones of history is like a test pit in a vast field, revealing a little more with each effort, getting us that much closer to knowing the whole of that person.

I’ve often thought that there must be little left to excavate or discover when it comes to the ancient and medieval worlds, and yet every day new discoveries are revealed that change our perspectives.

Academic research, archaeology, numismatics, toponymics and other fields add to our knowledge of history and past people.

But historical fiction has much to contribute in getting to know those that have gone before us. Only, when it comes to fiction, we get to know those people in a much more personal, intimate way that helps us to delve into their human side.

That’s what makes the melding of history and fiction so attractive to me. There is definitely a Golden Mean for historical fiction.

I think it best to end with Ms. Lyon’s description, through Aristotle, of the Golden Mean as he sees it:

“My few meagre tools with which I try to order the universe. You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time.”

Thank you for reading. 

Creating Perfection: the Golden Mean
and the Parthenon (from

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