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Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

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Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

Post by annis » Mon October 15th, 2012, 7:32 pm


As the Golden Age of Athens becomes a distant glow, the star of her bitter longtime rival Sparta is on the rise at the end of the 5th century BC, a century defined for the Greek world by the ongoing battle for dominance between these two powerful city-states. Beginning with the Battle of Notium, first of the two Spartan naval victories which effectively finished the Peloponnesian War and resulted in Athens' submission to Sparta, Cloud Cuckoo Land ends just as a company of Greek mercenaries sets off for Persia in support of Cyrus the Younger, an expedition later made famous by Xenophon's Anabasis.

An ardent campaigner for social justice and women's rights, Mitchison was one of the first proponents of the modern "plain English" historical novel and her style is typically lucid and evocative. Like Bryher, she was interested in the effect of wider historical events on ordinary people, events not always covered directly, but often seen only as they influence the lives of her characters. Mitchison also used the medium of historical fiction to draw parallels between the present and the past. Her stated inspiration for her first novel, The Conquered, was sympathy for the cause of Irish independence; in this case the struggle between democratic Athens and totalitarian Sparta reflects the rise of totalitarianism in the 1920s, and the subsequent threat to individual and national freedoms. She also highlights the repression of women in ancient Athens, clearly referencing keenly felt restrictions in her own time.*

Published in 1925, this poignant, vividly realised novel shows the decline of Athens from multiple points of view, but revolves around the fluctuating fortunes of Alxenor, a member of the ruling class of a tiny, idyllic island state in the Ægean Sea, subject to Athens. After a pro-Spartan coup, the young aristocrat and his wife Moiro are driven into exile, experiencing over the following years homesickness, hardship and sorrow as they wander through Greece and Asia Minor, travelling first to Athens, where Alxenor becomes a client of Athenian statesman, Theramenes, and takes part in the Battle of Arginusae, then on to Epheseus and Sparta, with Alxenor at the last taking the road to Sardis with the "Ten Thousand".

The title comes from Aristophanes' satire on human nature, The Birds, where it's the name of a Utopian city in the clouds. It's come to mean an unrealistically ideal state where everything is perfect, and someone described as "living in Cloud Cuckoo land" is seen as naïve, obtuse or a hopeless dreamer. Mitchison's point is that while we can dream of an ideal society, all forms of government are imperfect. However, it may be that only when the relative freedom of democracy is threatened do we realize just what we stand to lose and how much closer it is to the ideal than the alternative.

Hapless pawns of fate and the ambitions of Athens, Sparta and the Persian Empire, Cloud Cuckoo Land's characters are tossed this way and that by forces beyond their control, just as described by the birds' chorus in Aristophanes' play:

Hear us, you who are no more than leaves always falling, you mortals benighted by nature,
You enfeebled and powerless creatures of earth always haunting a world of mere shadows,
Entities without wings, insubstantial as dreams, you ephemeral things, you human beings...


Theramenes dragged to his execution during the regime of the Spartan-appointed Thirty Tyrants

* For an examination of Mitchison's treatment of gender in Cloud Cuckoo Land, see Ruth Hoberman's critical work Gendering Classicism.
Last edited by annis on Wed October 17th, 2012, 8:49 am, edited 6 times in total.

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