Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts on Alexander the Great

In reading Robin Lane Fox's Alexander the Great, I cannot help but also comment on Oliver Stone's Alexander.  There are at least two ways to view Alexander of Macedonia today, academically and as part of our collective popular culture.  As Fox makes clear in his book, Alexander would've enjoyed being a part of pop culture, being obsessed as he was with Achilles from Homer's The Iliad.  Today we have a complicated enough relationship with Homer.  There's plenty to talk about.

As one of the most notable figures in history, Alexander the Great will always capture the imagination.  He stretched the boundaries of the classical age, uniting it as never before and helping to make our modern age possible.  He belonged very much to his own time, and yet he looked backward as much as he pushed everything forward.  It may be easy today to view him as a typical conquering tyrant.  In Stone's vision, he becomes a fallible man obsessed with the demons of his past.  Is there any middle ground?  As Fox makes clear, the truth of the man is a little difficult to know at this point.  He lived a long time ago and all the existing records are secondhand at this point, not primary source, and even then, Alexander's own myths were already forming around him, which he encouraged, accepting versions of Zeus and Dionysus as his father as much as Philip, who paved the way for his ambitions if nothing else (but was probably, lets face it, his father).

Today it's hard to imagine that someone like him could be lost to the popular consciousness.  I read through several versions of The Iliad earlier this year, and have long been fascinated with the tale.  Yet in high school I found myself in the extraordinary position of writing a paper on the identity of Homer. Like Shakespeare after him Homer became lost to history and was presumed to be as much a fiction as his legacy.  Alexander didn't care so much about Homer as he did Achilles, the perfect example of a warrior, not even a king, and that may be the distinction that created the man, who became king but became one of the greatest warriors history has ever known.

Fox strives to find the truth of the man and succeeds, with a style that is very familiar to me, since I tend to write in it myself, though he can sometimes lose focus, nowhere greater than a rambling ending that reads very much like an academic exercise rather than the vital vision evident in the rest of the book.  I've read other biographies this year, too, about men whose lives cannot be definitively known, but Fox does a remarkable job keeping himself focused without becoming too lost in contextualizing Alexander.  (Writers, this is always the fatal poison.)

At the start of the millennium pop culture developed a fever around Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, a series of three films (soon to be expanded into six with additional installments inspired by the prequel The Hobbit).  Stone came along with Alexander a year after the last of these films, and as I've said instead of featuring the incredible journey and vision of his subject the director elected to explore the man and his effect on those around him.  Based on what I now know better from Fox's book, an epic trilogy could easily be made of Alexander's achievements and would probably be more popular, but even Troy, based on Homer's tale, failed that year.

Critics at the time were underwhelmed by Stone's effort, suggesting that the subject was lost in the swirl of emotions, that none of his genius was evident.  I can probably admit now that the details are swallowed up in this vision, though the scope is massive for a single film, regardless of the approach.  It would have been impossible to say everything there is to know about Alexander in a single film.  What Fox makes plain and how Stone represents it, however, is that Alexander was not just a sum of his experiences but rather a giant who ultimately overwhelmed his contemporaries.  If Stone fails to allow those around him to appreciate Alexander the Great, it's because that's exactly the way it was, and Fox backs up this assessment.

It may be worth noting that Stone used Fox as a primary source for his film.

Even Fox, though spending a great deal of time interspersing Alexander's life with what others thought of him and were inspired by him later, doesn't truly explain how Alexander deserves to still tower over mortal men.  He's depicted as a self-styled successor of Achilles and Heracles (the Greek form of Hercules, the Roman name you know better), and chasing after gods who in this version of history are founding fathers almost more than divine beings.

To me, it's fascinating.  Fox writes the history, Stone began the modern effort to make the story.  Hopefully more will follow.  Alexander the Great deserves to live in both worlds.

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