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The Fall of Sparta

Posted: Fri August 3rd, 2012, 7:28 pm
by annis
For while Agis the king was away on his campaigns, Alcibiades corrupted Timaea his wife, so that she was with child by him and made no denial of it. When she had given birth to a male child, it was called Leotychides in public, but in private the name which the boy's mother whispered to her friends and attendants was Alcibiades. Such being the state of things, there were many to tell the tale to Agis, and he believed it. Agis declared that he was no child of his. For this reason Leotychides was afterwards refused the royal succession. Plutarch, Alcibiades.

The Fox, by M.N.J. Butler has just been reviewed by David Maclaine at Margaret's Historical Novels Info website, for which thanks. I have to admit I'd hadn't heard of this long out-of-print book before, and would never have discovered it otherwise. It’s very obscure but I can’t resist a challenge, so tracked a copy down.

Set in the 4th century BC., The Fox follows the decline and fall of Sparta as seen through the eyes of Leotychides, bastard son of Spartan royalty and agoge-raised warrior. As an elderly, exiled mercenary attached to the Macedonian court, he records the events of his long life at the behest of Philip of Macedon (the young Alexander and his tutor Aristotle have bit parts). In style it's reminiscent of Thomas Sundell's Bloodline of Kings – epic, dense and richly detailed, but possibly a bit esoteric for the average reader. It was written at a time when readers were prepared to take a much more leisurely approach to their fiction; the pace is a measured one, and as David notes in his review, the cast of thousands with rather similar names can leave the reader’s head spinning at times. Hellenophiles will find it very rewarding, though - it is an elegiac, evocative and utterly absorbing account of a nation at that tipping point which sees a dominant, centuries-old military power fall into disarray and become a shadow of its former greatness within the span of a single lifetime. It has that haunting, end-of-an-era melancholia I associate with Bryher's work, and raises some thought-provoking questions about whether Sparta’s fall was caused by "crack in the dam" syndrome - the incremental erosion of Sparta's warrior culture through the dereliction of her strict ancient laws - or the result of ossification; an inability to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. And is Leotychides, seeking certainty in his own life through rigid adherence to the old Lycurgan constitution, a reminder that we abandon traditional values at our peril, or that the first rule of survival is "change or die"?

The author remains something of a mystery, even the brief bio on the book cover giving away very few clues. M N J Butler is described as a broadcaster and journalist, and was possibly Irish - the book's short, enigmatic epilogue reads "dublin sparta dublin". He (David says “he” so I’ll assume the author is male) is quoted as having written another book called In the Absence of Heroes, but I can find no record of it at all - was it another novel? Anyone know?

The Fox is extremely hard to come by. Despite the publication date (1995), it has the feel of a self-published book - perhaps the reason for its rarity? This impression is reinforced by the fact that the publisher can't be found anywhere else except in connection with this title and that the '90s was a time when historical fiction as a genre hit the wall and publishing houses didn't want a bar of it. Although eloquently written by a author with an excellent grasp of the nuances and complexities of the period, it also misses a copy editor's touch; as well as the confusing lack of hyphenation mentioned by David there are a few noticeable errors scattered throughout, and an idiosyncratic absence of commas sometimes makes the immediate meaning unclear.

Political machinations, battles, triumphs, heartbreaking losses and the ghosts of the recent past shape this vivid and compelling picture of the Greek world in the years following the end of the Peloponnesian War. It's a story that will stay with you long after you've finished it, but be prepared to pay a hefty price to get your hands on a copy.

Military historian and former classics professor, Victor Davis Hanson, has recently published a novel (his first) called The End of Sparta, which deals with the same subject as The Fox. I haven’t yet read it, but it would certainly be interesting to compare the two.

Does anyone know of other novels covering this period? Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire is excellent on Spartan life and customs, but is set at an earlier time.

Sparta: Fall of Empire at the History Net website ... empire.htm

Posted: Tue August 7th, 2012, 6:39 pm
by Margaret
Actually, there's no clue about the author's gender - we should probably adjust the wording in the review. I couldn't find any reference to an "In the Absence of Heroes" by M.N.J. Butler on the web, either, though there's a very recent book under the same title published by a different author. Butler's book by the same title would have to have been published before The Fox to be referenced in the jacket copy. It's a fascinating mystery, and I would be greatly obliged to anyone who manages to track this author down!

The Fox is especially hard to find in the U.S., where the only Interlibrary Loan copy comes from the Library of Congress and must be read in the borrower's library rather than taken home!

1995 wasn't so very long ago, so maybe M.N.J. Butler is still kicking around somewhere and will feel moved to try finding a publisher to issue a new edition!

Rosemary Sutcliff's novel about Alcibiades, The Flowers of Adonis, does mention his amorous adventures in Sparta. This is one of Sutcliff's very few adult novels and is as superb in every way as the best of her YA novels.

Posted: Wed August 8th, 2012, 3:06 am
by annis
I may be wrong, but it's my opinion that M N J Butler set up the Blackwoods indent for the express purpose of publishing The Fox. Possibly related is a dedication to his bank manager, among others, at the beginning of the book!

I would guess Butler to be male - he/she seems to have had a cosmopolitan life- "born in Nairobi, Kenya, educated in Ireland, read Classics and Ancient History and worked as a journalist and broadcaster in France, England, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent."

If anyone (like David) was keen to get The Fox reissued it could be worth contacting Pen & Sword, who have been advertising for expressions of interest in recent times. How you'd work out who held the rights to the book, though, I don't know.

"My name is Jonathan Wright and I work for Pen & Sword Books, one of the UK's largest military history publishers. We're interested in launching a historical fiction imprint and are currently on the look out for new authors. We're interested in all periods from ancient history to present day. Books can be about any aspect of history and do not necessarily have to contain a military theme. If anyone has written a book and would like to submit it for consideration, we'd be delighted to hear from you. We're also interested in titles that are now out of print, so if you know of any classics that you would like to see back in print, please let me know. My email address is [email protected]"

Alcibiades, although dead by the time The Fox begins, has as significant a presence as any of the book's other characters. I always think of him as the 3-B hero - brilliant, beautiful and a right bastard (metaphorically speaking, as opposed to his son Leotychides, whose life in The Fox is both dominated and blighted by the deeds of his true father). On the subject of Alcibiades I would add to Sutcliff's Flowers of Adonis, Steven Pressfield's Tides of War.

On another note, I see that David has just reviewedThomas Sundell's Bloodline, which I mentioned earlier in relation to The Fox :)

Posted: Wed August 8th, 2012, 3:44 pm
by parthianbow
How interesting, Annis, not just about the book, but about the author. Born in Nairobi, educated in Ireland - like me and my brother, and not too common a background. I must ask my brother has he been writing books on the sly! Thanks for posting. Another book for me to track down and then find the time to read. I might have to start off a second Mt. TBR, called Mount Annis! ;)

(In a sidenote, Dark North, which you mentioned recently, was only published in 2007, but is already out of print. Not good. Not happy about that!)

Posted: Wed August 8th, 2012, 8:14 pm
by annis
@Ben: it's surprising just how quickly books can go out of print. At the library we quite often go to reorder lost/damaged books published relatively recently, only to find we can't replace them because they're now OOP. If it weren't for the interlibrary loan system there are some books you'd never get your hands on.

I got lucky with The Fox because I picked up a copy quite cheap from a local online auction site. I can only presume the seller had no idea of its rarity value!

I often think it's a pity I live at the far ends of the earth, otherwise I could lend you my copy of Dark North and Richard Podos my Fox :)

Yes, M N J Butler is a puzzle, and without even a Christian name to go by, I'm stumped. The use of initials only sometimes indicates a female author, too. And it could be a pseudonym! Because the publisher is no longer extant, asking them isn't an option either. As I said, The Fox appears to have been the only book published by that company.

Posted: Thu August 9th, 2012, 5:49 am
by parthianbow
Annis, you're very kind even to think of lending me your books. Thank you.

I got a copy (ex-library, 1st ed. hardback) of Dark North with little difficulty. It remains to be seen whether I can do the same thing with The Fox...

Posted: Fri August 10th, 2012, 10:59 pm
by annis
I've always had a philosophical approach to worldly possessions. and I'm quite happy to give them away and/or share them, especially books (of which I have a ridiculous number anyway!) There are of course one or two preciouses that I'd rather hang on to :)

Hope you enjoy Dark North, Ben. Island of Ghosts is my favorite Bradshaw, but Dark North covers such an interesting period, and the main character is sympathetic and engaging.

Posted: Mon September 10th, 2012, 9:04 am
by Chiliarch
I was lucky to get the last copy of The Fox from Amazon UK marketplace, and at a reasonable price too. Probably because I reacted quickly to the review. And I totally agree with David in that this is, indeed, one of the very best novels set in ancient Greece.

Another really good novel about Alcibiades is Stephanie Plowman's The Road to Sardis. I enjoyed that very much.

As for Victor Davis Hanson's The End of Sparta I can only say that it was hard to get through being written in a pseudo-ancient language and peopled by not very likeable or interesting characters. Hanson is a great fan of Epaminondas, the Theban general, but after reading this novel I came out actually rooting for the Spartans, who are the bad guys in the story.

Posted: Tue September 11th, 2012, 6:00 am
by parthianbow
OK, I fell off the wagon of not buying books (thanks to buying about 5 texts on Roman weddings). Snaffled a copy of The Fox from for 23 Euros. It better be worth it, Annis! ;-)

Posted: Tue September 11th, 2012, 6:49 am
by annis
@Ben: I hope so, too! I'm pretty sure you'll like it more than Ian Crouch's Pyrrhic Victory and John Jakes' Man from Cannae, anyway (though I don't think I actually recommended either - I'll have to be careful about which books I mention in future :) ) The price for your Fox is fairly solid, but I have seen copies on sale for much more astronomical prices - it is something of a rare book, though. I'll be interested (or is that nervous?) to hear what you think of it!