The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

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Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.

Cheese and Culture – Paul Kindstedt

A cheese scientist at the University of Vermont by trade, Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture traces the history of cheese and its role in Western Civilization. I grimaced at “Western Civilization” in the subtitle, but was reconciled to it because, as Kindstedt argues, cheese as it is currently known is a largely western phenomenon because lactase tolerance in adults was more common in the Middle East and Europe than elsewhere in the world.

Kindstedt starts in the Fertile Crescent with the domestication of dairy animals, but convincingly shows that the inability to process dairy meant that these animals were not milked, but used for meat and hides. The change came, he argues, when at a time of ecological crisis and food shortage that saw the milking of animals to feed children and, eventually adults. Cheese and butter, which retain much of the nutritional value of milk but eliminate some or most of the lactose, followed soon after. By biblical times, fresh cheese was an appropriate gift for deities.

The strongest element of Cheese and Culture is the careful observation of changes in cheese-making techniques, which is perhaps to be expected from a scientist of the processes. For instance, Kindstedt meticulously charts types of cheese fermentation, particularly acid, heating, and rennet, the last of which he reasonably posits came about by shepherds witnessing cheese curd in the stomachs of slaughtered animals. Thus Kindstedt leads the reader through changes, including Roman agricultural manuals on farm practices, monastic cheese production, and the transition to industrial cheese production.

It is on that last issue during the 19th Century that I found most interesting. Cheddar was the king of American cheese production during the entirety of the 20th century despite Cheshire having been the most common in 1851 when the first “cheese factory” opened in upstate New York. But Cheddar was easier to develop industrial processes for, including guidebooks on measurements, cooking temperatures, and so on, as well as being a cheese that lent itself to production in large blocks. Then, with the Civil War forcing women (the usual cheesemakers) to do other work on the farm and England lowering tariffs on cheese in desperation to feed of a burgeoning population–and that London particularly loved Cheddar, industrial cheesemaking exploded. However, industrial cheesemaking also diluted quality and taste because overproduction drove prices down.

Cheese and Culture is a book that is strikingly “Vermont,” including that there are several sentences complaining about EU trade regulations about naming rights on cheese and mocking the idea that Vermont Cheddar would have been named something like “Vermont Delight.”

There is a lot to recommend Cheese and Culture, but it is not without flaws. First, although Kindstedt does a passable job covering cheese in Greece and Rome, his framework is still somewhat set along the lines of the bible since the epitaph for each of the early chapters is taken from the Bible. Second, it is possible to quibble that cheese is as central to a narrative of world history. For instance, Kindstedt has a tendency to elevate cheese in places where cheese is but one of the commodities being traded, which might suggest a manipulation to make cheese more important than it actually was. (Not that I am unsympathetic, I might add, as a loyal son of Vermont and fervent caseophile.)

Third, the scope of Cheese and Culture is so large that Kindstedt necessarily speaks in some generalities. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the book where, after describing how there came to be a diversity of cheese (largely the result of variations in geography), Kindstedt falls back on generalities about American versus European cheese and the admittedly interesting account of trade wars.The problem is not that it doesn’t work in the context of this book about “Western Civilization,” but rather that he hints at a wider story about cheese in America. For instance, there is emphasis on New England cheese, but nothing about California or Wisconsin, and only passing mention about how Cheddar (probably including American) was the dominant cheese in America until passed by Mozzarella in 2001. The cause of mozzarella’s (and presumably other cheese’s) relegation? It was considered immigrant food. Just as with the bagel, there is a wider story about the American assimilation of food. This is not Kindstedt’s core theme and I should not criticize him for what he is not doing, but I found that adding one more section about the assimilation of non-Cheddar cheeses in America and regional variation would have strengthened the latter parts of the book. Instead, there is brief summation of the US-EU trade wars about cheese and brief mention of the return of artisanal cheese that offer taste in return for more money. These are important topics, but came across as somewhat anodyne compared to the more nuanced discussion about the creation of cheese diversity.

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I didn’t turn on my computer this past weekend in an effort to recharge a little bit, and so I have fallen behind on writing up my reading. I finished Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty Book 2) last week and Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic The Yiddish Policeman’s Union this morning. I am not sure what I am reading next, but on the nonfiction front it will either be Charles Mann’s 1493 or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature; in terms of fiction, I have too many options to list and am currently pulled in several different directions.

Unjust logos and the crowd

Earlier this year I wrote about attacks on education and Aristophanes’ Clouds. As much as I believe other Aristophanic comedies are funnier and that they are better plays, something about 2016 keeps drawing me back to Clouds, a dark portrait of education, as containing nuggets of wisdom about society.

To recap, the conceit of The Clouds is that Strepsiades is in a bind because he is in debt and has lost court cases. His solution is to send his son, Pheidippides, to school that he may learn all the tricks of sophistry, which will make the weaker argument stronger and get him off the hook for debt. At this point in the play, Strepsiades has gone to Socrates’ school the Thinkery to see for himself what he is going to get with this investment.

Strepsiades:
“Teach him, he has a capacity for sophistry by nature…However, let him learn those two Arguments, the stronger and the weaker, and that the unjust arguments overturn the stronger. If not both, at any rate, [see that he learns] the unjust one completely.” [ἀμέλει δίδασκε, θυμόσοφός ἐστιν φύσει…ὅπως δ᾽ἐκείνω τὼ λόγω μαθήσεται, τὸν κρείττον᾽ὅστις ἐστὶ καὶ τὸν ἥττονα, ὃς τἄδικα λέγων ἀνατρέπει τὸν κρείττονα. ἐὰν δὲ μή, τὸν γοῦν ἄδικον πάσῃ τέχνῃ]

Socrates:
“He will learn them from the Logoi (Arguments) in person.” [αὐτὸς μαθήσεται παρ᾽αὐτοῖν τοῖν λόγοιν.]

Strepsiades:
“Remember now, that he must be able to speak against every course case.” [τοῦτό νυν μέμνησ᾽, ὅπως πρὸς πάντα τὰ δίκαι᾽ ἀντιλέγειν δυνήσεται]

[878-889]

After a brief exchange, both characters leave the stage and are replaced by personifications of the two Logoi (Arguments).

Just Logos:
“Make room here, show yourself to the onlookers, although you are bold!” [Χώρει δευρί, δεῖξον σαυτὸν τοῖσι θεαταῖς, καίπερ θρασὺς ὤν.]

Unjust Logos:
“Go wherever you want. I will destroy you far more speaking in front of a crowd!” [ἴθ᾽ ὅποι χρᾐζεις. πολὺ γὰρ μᾶλλὀν ᾽ς ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖσι λέγων ἀπολῶ.]

[889-892]

The debate between Just Logos and Unjust Logos continues. Unjust Logos quickly turns to insults (Just Logos is antiquated [ἀρχαῖος]) and profanity, and then slips into an argument filled with non sequitors and false comparisons that rejects Just Logos at every turn. What struck me was how the argument is framed, with Unjust Logos explicitly declaring that his brand of rhetoric works better the bigger the crowd is because the ability of the individual to judge arguments clearly is obfuscated by the emotion of the collective.

Note that Aristophanes does not restrict the strength of Unjust Logos to this setting as often appears in this critique of democracy from ancient Greece to Men in Black, but rather that large crowds magnify its power.

Current Mood

And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.

et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Livy, AUC pr. 4-5

I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.

Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.

At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.

The Muse of Lecture

Programming Note: I have been particularly busy of late so my reading has bogged down and substantive post-worthy thoughts are coming in fits and starts, so while there are some things in the works, things are going to remain irregular for the foreseeable future.

I have been thinking a lot about lectures recently because I have been tasked with a bunch of guest lectures, some scheduled, some emergency. Everyone has their own lecture styles, sometimes more than one depending on the type of class. Some are impressionistic, with good information, but refer students to sources where specific information is to be had. Some read from overloaded slides or march the audience through topic after topic, while others have detailed historiographical essays that they spin out as master storytellers.

Everyone needs to find their lecturing style and, ideally, have their muse. My lecturing style is still immature and improving, but I thought I should make mention of the person I consider my muse of the lecture.

Picture this. You arrive to class somewhat early and get out your notebook to make sure that you can write down the lists of names and terms being written up on the blackboard. Sometimes the professor is there writing down the terms, other times it is a TA, but, without fail, there is the list. Some terms, he says, are purely to help with spelling. Other than an occasional map, this will be the only aid and the extensive bank of terms doubles as the study guide for the exams. It is important that you arrive early and start writing because the lecture begins as soon as the class starts and you can’t risk missing anything that is said. When the period is over, your hand is cramped and it is entirely possible that you will need extra sheets of paper for your notebook before the semester is over, but you will have everything you need.

The scene should be familiar to most Brandeis history majors, at least if they took a course from Professor William Kapelle. Everyone has their Kapelle stories, and he certainly had plenty for you. I remember, for instance, a mini-diatribe about the international seafood market and one about the fine print of credit card offers. But then class began, sometimes with an apology if we had to have a lecture about agricultural changes in the Middle Ages, sometimes with no prologue. At one point while I was at Brandeis he began to write his lectures in exam bluebooks, declaring that it was the perfect length for a 50 minute class. In either case, he had a topic of the day and spun it out for a captivated audience of furiously-writing students. There were snarky asides, stories, and jokes, but the lectures were informative and detailed. I still have my lecture notes from his classes.

I owe a debt to Professor Kapelle, including for his willingness to write reference letters that got me into graduate school, but, the more I prepare to teach classes, the more I realize that it is his model that I start from in terms of how I want to lecture.

Thermopylae in literature, War and Peace

Maybe it was that I read Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire on the recommendation of my eighth grade social studies teacher, well before I settled on Greek history as a primary field of study and certainly before I had any inkling that graduate school in history was a thing, but Thermopylae has fascinated me for more than half of my life. I have a soft spot for heroism and for desperate last-stands, so the command μολὼν λαβέ (come and take them!) in the right context* gives me chills. As a scholar, the battle perplexes me; I simultaneously don’t believe Herodotus’ version of Leonidas’ sacrifice being at the root of the decision to sacrifice these soldiers and find it the most plausible. Nothing else has convinced me, except that there may be too many levels of myth surrounding the events to ever actually unravel what happened. I don’t mean to get too deeply into Thermopylae, particularly while I am still working on my dissertation in which the battle never comes up, but suffice to say that it is an event that still intrigues me.

*i.e. not when it is a call to arms against gun control.

This background for my interest in Thermopylae is relevant because reference to the battle appeared in a recent non-academic read, War and Peace. What follows is also the first of an occasional series I am going to do talking about instances of classical reception.

The officer with the twin moustaches, Zdrzhinsky by name, grandiloquently described the dam at Saltanov as being a ‘Russian Thermopylae’, and declared the heroic deed of Greneral Raevsky on that dam to be worthy on antiquity…

Rostov looked at him without speaking. ‘To begin with, there must have been such a crush and confusion on the dam they were attacking that if Raevsky had really rushed forward with his sons it could have had no effect except perhaps on the ten or twelve men nearest to him,’ thought Rostov. ‘The rest could not have seen how or with whom Raevsky advanced on to the dam. And then even those who did see could have have been particularly inspired, for what did Raevsky’s tender paternal feelings matter to them when they had their own skins to the think about? And, moreover, the fate of the Fatherland did not depend on whether the Saltanov dam was taken, as we are told was the case at Thermopylae. So what was the use of such a sacrifice?’

There is a lot to unravel about this passage, including how Tolstoy talks about war, which is something I want to explore when I get around to reviewing the novel in the near future. But for now I just want to make two observations.

First it struck me that while the overly-enthusiastic Zdrzhinsky is capable of citing Thermopylae and knows that the battle was important in the final defeat of an invader, he is does not know all of the details. “Thermopylae” is just a symbol for him, pregnant with meaning but devoid of context.

Second, and related, Rostov provides some of that context and I think offers an some insight into Tolstoy’s vision of the interplay between providence and history. His vision of Thermopylae still lacks the Greek cultural context, but gives some broader historical context, namely that the sacrifice was a divine mandate to save Greece, while the battle at Saltanov was an individual moment of foolish heroism of the sort that happens all the time in war but still miss greater purpose. Ironically, I believe that some of the legend and importance of Thermopylae developed out of hindsight, i.e. that since the Greeks won they were able to point at the battle as an important moment. Like Xerxes, Napoleon is defeated, but gone is that glorious moment.

Martial Prowess

I’ve been interested in collective reputations for martial prowess for a long time. I even once wrote a misguided blog post on the topic that misrepresented Sparta and Spartans in a way that is uniquely suited to an overly-exuberant, young, American man. My opinions on that particular topic have come a long way since then, but the general interest in the concept remains. This sort of thinking has been long ingrained through years of table top gaming and reading hierarchically-minded science fiction and fantasy that frequently has an underpinning of principles that mirror scientific racism, but that is perhaps a topic for another post. What I find interesting from a historical perspective is not why the groups were militarily successful (or even if they were), but how, when and why these reputations for being a “martial race” develop.

My current fun read is an English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have completed book one, which concludes with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. At the battle, Napoleon’s army convincingly destroyed the joint armies of Austria and Russia.

Thus far I have appreciated the timelessness of Tolstoy’s battle descriptions. I will write up longer thoughts when I finish the novel, but a passing comment in the first book stood out. At a party where a number of Russian officers discuss the Napoleon’s progress, one of them flippantly dismisses the French victories on the grounds that they were only fighting against Germans. On the one hand, this is part of the characterization of a young man full of bluster, but, on the other, it speaks to a broader stereotype of Germans as militarily inept that, even in the years that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, Otto von Bismark (among others) swept away.

Although this instance in War and Peace is meant to downplay French successes, but the story goes on to demonstrate that not only are the Germans unable to stop Napoleon, but he also defeats the Russian army. The juxtaposition is stark on all these points. The French reputation against the German, and the way in which both of the reputations flipped—-so much so that a Google search for “French Military Victories” used to autocorrect to “did you mean French Military Defeats” and a website that tried to show that every French military victory was attributable to people who were not actually French. But therein lies the rub: these are reputations and reputations change based on a host of factors that are only loosely connected to reality.