Friday, September 04, 2015

Novel of Ancient Greece

The Mask of ApolloThe Mask of Apollo 
by Mary Renault

""There is a book of Plato's I read once--yes, truly, I read the whole of it.  It was a supper party where they made speeches in praise of love.  I dare say you know it?'
'Yes,' said Speusippos.  'Yes, I have read The Symposion once or twice.  I reread it yesterday.'" (p 236)

Historical novelist Mary Renault was  born Eileen Challans in Forest Gate, England, on this day in 1905.  She is best known for her novels of Ancient Greece and studied at Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien was one of her tutors. 

I love her historical fiction and this is the first of her novels that I read. At the time I already had begun to acquire a passion for ancient Greece from a wonderful Latin teacher in high school. Luckily for us in addition to teaching us Latin our teacher imbued in us an interest in learning about everything classical that grew for me into more reading and led me to the discovery of Mary Renault and her historical fiction set in ancient Greece. The story of The Mask of Apollo involves the world of live theater and political intrigue in the Mediterranean at the time.

The narrator, Nikeratos is a successful professional actor, and Renault vividly evokes the technologies and traditions of classic Greek Tragedy. With detailed recreations of what might have been involved in the staging of a theatrical production of the time, she describes the music, scenery, mechanical special effects devices, and especially the practice of the three principal actors sharing the various roles in a performance, along with authentic gossip involved in these casting decisions.

Nikeratos, is an invented character, but real historical figures such as Dion of Syracuse and Plato make appearances. It is Renault's seamless blend of real historical characters within her fictional stories that makes her novels come alive for me. I even sometimes think, being an inveterate play-goer, what would it be like to pray or prepare a sacrifice for the success of the play before-hand. Some plays could use the help. I would recommend Mary Renault's novels of Ancient Greece to anyone who has an interest in our classical Greek heritage.

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Stephen said...

Most of the historical fiction set in this era that I'm aware of is war-centered, so the thought of one about Greek's more humane side sounds good!

Lory said...

I've been meaning to read more Mary Renault. I'd like to read this one as well as her Alexander trilogy. Thanks for the review!

James said...

Yes, there is a lot of fiction about the Persian War and others. Renault covers more of the mythology like Theseus in The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I would like to read her Alexander novels also.

Brian Joseph said...

I think that novels set in ancient Greece are very rare. As much of our culture has been influenced by the ancient Greeks, it seems that in many ways their world was so far removed from ours, that it is difficult to wrap one's head around what day to day life would have been like.

Thus, I think that I would find this book interesting to say the least.