The Songs of the Kings is a more realistic and political retelling of the Greek tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis. I have never read this play written by Euripides, but I have read The Iliad, the great poem by Homer which chronicles the end of the Trojan war, which this play precedes.
The invasion of Troy has stalled at Aulis. A strong wind is preventing the ships from setting sail. This is Ancient Greece, of course it cannot simply be atrocious weather conditions, the Gods must have a hand in this. The alliance of Greek States, brought together under the pretext of Paris’ abduction of Helen, is threatening to break apart and withdraw before the impending war has even had a chance to start. The Gods must be appeased, and a sacrifice is needed. The “news” quickly finds Agamemnon that it is his daughter who the Gods are demanding to be sacrificed. However, where did this “news” originate from and who stands to benefit the most from it.
Odysseus, who is cast as more of a villain than a hero in this novel, cannot afford for the invasion force to fracture and for each of the states to withdraw and return to their kingdoms. Odysseus’ kingdom is Ithaca. A tiny rock in the Greek Empire. This invasion of Troy gives him the perfect opportunity to seize land and power and ultimately, riches and fame. Odysseus, who has always been cast as the wily, conniving, brains and planner in Greek mythology, is portrayed in a darker light with this novel. He is power hungry, manipulative and political. His main weapon a blind bard who he uses as a propaganda tool to sway the mood and views of the men over to his side and convince Agamemnon that his daughters’ sacrifice is unavoidable.
This novel was published in 2002 and I cannot shake the feeling that Unsworth is using this novel as a satirical comparison with America’s invasion of Iraq. A massive grouping of forces brought together for an invasion under the pretext of misinformation. The Greek States compared to the Coalition’s forces. The misinformation of Helen’s abduction, compared to the misinformation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The riches of Troy, the oil and riches of Iraq. The importance of the control of the media and propaganda.
Unsworth certainly doesn’t shy from pelting some of Greek mythologies greatest hero’s with tar and feathers. Agamemnon, is constantly plagued with worry about the invasion falling apart, and his tenuous hold on power, his brother Menelaus with every chance he gets, never stops moaning about Helen being abducted by Paris. Both Ajax’s are buffoons, and Nestor, poor old Nestor is portrayed as a senile old fool always bringing up the same old stories of his past glory days at each meeting.
Paradoxically it is Calchas, Agamemnon’s seer, who does much of the narrating throughout the novel, and who is an outsider and vilified in The Iliad, who seems to be the most level- headed, and tries without success to steer Agamemnon away from the sacrifice.
Iphigenia is sent for and wastes no time in embarking for Aulis under the fictional story that Achilles has requested Agamemnon for her hand in marriage. However just as her ship arrives at Aulis the winds die down. Will the sacrifice still go ahead?
I don’t believe that you need to have read Iphigenia in Aulis, but a rudimentary knowledge of The Iliad and the Trojan War is extremely helpful in understanding what Unsworth is alluding to with this novel. For me it is a satire about politics, war and propaganda using Euripides’ play as the setting.
Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.
From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.
A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British Council, at University of Istanbul,Turkey for British Council, lived as a Writer in residence, Liverpool University, England, and also at Lund University, Sweden. He was a teacher at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, 1999.
Unsworth was twice married, to Valerie Moor, 1959 with whom he had three daughters (marriage dissolved, 1991), and to Aira Pohjanvaara-Buffa, 1992. In later years made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.
Unsworth's first novel, The Partnership, was published in 1966 when he was 36. "...in my earlier novels, especially the two written in the early ’70s, The Hide and Mooncranker’s Gift, there was a baroque quality in the style, a density. The mood was grim, but the language was more figurative and more high-spirited. There was more delight in it, more self-indulgence, too. Among my earliest influences as a writer were the American novelists of the deep south, especially Eudora Welty, and some of that elated, grotesque comedy stayed with me."
Other novels include Mooncranker's Gift (1973) (winner of the Heinemann Award), Stone Virgin (1985), and Losing Nelson (1999). He counts William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers as his major influences.
Unsworth did not start to write historical fiction until his sixth novel, Pascali's Island. Pascali's Island (1980), the first of his novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is set on an unnamed Aegean island during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Reflecting on this shift, Unsworth explained: "Nowadays I go to Britain relatively rarely and for short periods; in effect, I have become an expatriate. The result has been a certain loss of interest in British life and society and a very definite loss of confidence in my ability to register the contemporary scene there – the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics etc.– with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. So I have turned to the past. The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition – then and now – which transcend the particular period and become timeless." Pascali's Island was adapted as a film by James Dearden, starring Charles Dance, Helen Mirren, and Ben Kingsley as the title character.
Morality Play, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995, is a murder mystery set in 14th-century England. It was adapted as a film, The Reckoning, starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe.
"With time I have grown more sparing with the words. I think less of fire-works and flourishes. I try to get warmth and color through precision of language. This is more difficult, I think, which may be why I find writing novels so challenging and exacting."
Awards: Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1974, for Mooncranker's Gift; Arts Council Creative Writing fellowship, Charlotte Mason College, 1978-79; literary fellow, Universities of Durham and Newcastle, 1983-84; Booker Prize (joint winner), 1992, for Sacred Hunger; honorary Litt.D., Manchester University, 1998.
Here is a link to the BBC with a podcast of Unsworth talking about the book - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03m122q