Marion Zimmer-Bradley: The Firebrand

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All of us know about the tales and myths that were penned about the Siege of Troy. We are familiar with the heroes, the fights, the belligerence und the conquest of the city which was ultimately burned to the ground. At least we think so.

But what about the women of Troy? Reports depicting the Siege of Troy tend to be narrated from either male or divine perspectives – but how would the women of Troy have witnessed the Siege and, generally, the life back in these days? How did they feel in a world so strongly dominated by males and male decision-making?

These questions are the scope of Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s vastly popular novel ‚The Firebrand‘ – which not only re-narrates the Troyan war from the priestess Kassandra’s perspective, but also generally aims at depicting what a woman’s role and life must have looked like back in those days.

Personae:

I am not exactly an expert on the author’s oeuvre – in fact, I have really only read ‚The Firebrand‘ and ‚The Mists of Avalon‘; but from these two books I gather that characters are paramount for Marion Zimmer-Bradley; both for the working of her novels and for her as a person. She seems to cherish them. That is – at least to me! – what it feels like when I read her books: All of her characters are very finely delineated and truely vivid – or in one word: Outstanding. Outstanding is also the word I’d use for her capability of keeping all of these characters up in a vivid way – they are very finely tuned and have their individual proper roles, but also epitomise personalities and characteristics that are not necessary for the depiction of these roles. This is excellent, as it makes the characters even more interesting and enjoyable to pursue throughout the narratives. It is not deviating at all!

Even more remarkable that the individual characters themselves is the author’s capability of depicting the characters‘ developmental stages in biographical respects. You feel as if you were truely experiencing the story not as a real-world observer, but through the eyes of the female characters (here: Kassandra). This point of view also mirrors the characters‘ flaws as well as their strengths and renders not only the action genuine, but also results in the reader really sharing the pain, joy, sadness and relief of the female characters. That in itself – the successful depiction of the Siege of Troy from a female perspective – makes the novel an outstanding read and a very insightful addition to not only the Iliad itself, but all of its retellings.

Another huge plus is the depiction of the males and virility in general. We generally perceive Akhilles, Hector, Paris and Priam, also Aeneas, Odysseus and Agamemnon as heroes; admittedly with their flaws and weaknesses, but generally as very capable, strong and powerful men. But have we ever though about how these men must have behaved towards women – back when women were considered as inferior, weak and gullible? I must confess that, when I first read the novel (seven years ago), I was ashamed about how little I had though about these – alleged – heroes‘ downsides and their social demeanour before. To me, reading about these heroes from a female perspective had a mind-bending impact on me, especially on the way I perceive the ’strong‘ men of the Siege of Troy.

Even more impressive is how the author depicts not only individual personae, but also the city-state of Troy and other sociotopes. Marion Zimmer-Bradley truely excells at depicting transitions between different eras, the formative years of incipient change and the gradual decline of once-strong structures, traditions and rituals in waning socio-religious ethnic groups. I should possible say that I have never read anything that excells so much in this respect like the fiction of Marion Zimmer-Bradley.

Plot

Kassandra’s point of view is, as I’ve already mentioned, the single most important cornerstone of the novel’s narration. We perceive practically everything that happens through her eyes – for significant actions like the ‚Judgement of Paris‘ (where Kassandra was not present), the author has very craftily managed to find very clever ways of depicting these events without marginalizing either the events themselves or Kassandra’s significance.

I am also very fond of how the author does not start with the Siege itself, but with Kassandra’s childhood. Not only because the depiction of Kassandra’s childhood is an enthralling read and a great introduction to the main character, but also because the passages are great for introducing the reader to the women’s lives at the time of the Siege of Troy and because it provides the author with the opportunity of depicting the women’s status in societies other than Troy or the Greek poleis.

Also, the plot exceeds the Siege of Troy – and thus introduces the reader to the aftermath of the war against Troy. I think, these passages are not only an exciting read, as well, but also very important for the readers, as they are not yet quite ready to leave the personae they have come to love (with so many fates unknown!).

I would also like to mention that Marion Zimmer-Bradley includes divine intervention not nearly as strongly and decisively as the Iliad and the Aeneid do – which is probably quite a risk when we consider how crucial the gods‘ intervention is for the working of this novels‘ foundations, namely the Iliad and the Aeneid. I think she did great, as she kind of includes divine intervention – which is, however, always perceived through the eyes of Kassandra. It is, thus, for the reader to decide which elements are ‚inventions‘ of Kassandra’s make-believe – and which ones do transpire in the fictitious world.

Style:

Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s English is very colourful, rich in words and expressions – it might thus be somewhat challenging for those how are not that well acquainted with the subtleties of the English language. Those who are will find it an interesting, incredibly rich and truely rewarding language – not in the way of metaphors, metre or rhythm; but with regards to lexical richness and colourfulness.

If you are unsure – there is, among others, a German translation called ‚Die Feuer von Troja‘; there might be other international editions.

Conclusion:

Before going to ‚The Firebrand‘ about a week ago, I had read the book before – about seven years. There are some books that keep staying in your mind, some you forget after some time. This one had stayed in my mind as somewhat mediocre, but readable.

Boy, was I surprised when I entered the story the second time. When I finished the book after more than 600 pages of a truely rewarding read, I ended up sitting there just staring out the window, not really being capable of letting it go. Because the reading was so good! Maybe I wasn’t ready yet (developmentally or linguistically), when I read the book seven years ago. Now I seem to be – and I cannot but praise the book: ‚The Firebrand‘ offers magnificent insight into a truely different Troy from a truely different point of view. In addition to that, the characters are what make this book so great: You share the pain, the suffering, the passion, the relief – and their growth and decline. If you want to experience the Siege of Troy from a truely special, mind-bending point of view, this is the novel you should go to.

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