TAC Bookshelf for the Week of May 6
Daniel Larison, senior editor: I recently read a pair of short books by Tom Holland that detail the lives and reigns of Athelstan (r. 924-939) and Æthelflæd (r. 911-918), who were some of the most important early English monarchs. Both of these tenth-century rulers were related to the great king of the West Saxons, Alfred, and they played a vital role in establishing a unified English kingdom. Æthelflæd was Alfred’s daughter and wife to Æthelred, the ruler of Mercia, but she was also an able and successful ruler and builder in her own right after her husband’s death. Known asmyrcna hlæfdige, the Lady of the Mercians, she was regarded by some medieval sources as the most famous of the Saxon queens, and she was responsible for reviving Mercian military strength and ending Viking encroachments on their territory.
Athelstan was her nephew and Alfred’s grandson, and he grew up in Mercia away from the Wessex court following the death or banishment of his mother. Raised under the tutelage of his aunt and uncle, Athelstan went on to succeed his father, Edward the Elder, as the ruler of both Mercia and Wessex, and he presided over a short but frenetic reign of fifteen years until his death in 939. Remembered as rex pius, the pious king, and a patron of learning, Athelstan is best known for achieving major and lasting military and political successes to create a new realm of Englalonde. During his reign, York came under permanent Anglo-Saxon rule, and according to his public rhetoric Athelstan aspired to unite the entire island under one king and called himself king of all Britain. The foundations of what became England were laid in these early decades of the tenth century, and Athelstan and Æthelflæd were among its chief architects. Reconstructing the lives of these medieval English rulers is a challenging task because of the limited and questionable sources available, and much of what we would like to know about them is lost. Despite those difficulties, Holland does a good job of presenting their stories to the modern reader and immersing us in their world for a little while.
Grayson Quay, contributor: Primarily because I’m planning to see a production of it in D.C. in a few weeks, secondarily because I just accepted a teaching position at a Classical Christian school and would like to avoid being schooled on Ancient Greek drama by a bunch of ninth graders, and tertiarily because TAC managing editor Matt Purple recommended it to me, I recently spent an entire day reading and annotating Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the only surviving Ancient Greek trilogy.
At first, it was slow going. My translation, by Richmond Lattimore, emphasized poetry over clarity and seemed at first to need a translation of its own. Fortunately, by the time I was a third of the way through Agamemnon, I’d gotten a feel for his style, and grew to appreciate it as I moved on to The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.
Early on, I got a pleasant surprise. On the night that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was on the campaign trail, preparing to address a predominately African-American crowd in Indianapolis. As cities across the country braced for riots and RFK’s advisors begged him to get as far as he could from the yet-unknowing crowd while he had the chance, the candidate stepped up onto a flatbed truck to break the news. In a scene that was itself like something out of Greek tragedy, he quoted Agamemnon from memory:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair,
Against our will,
Through the awful grace of God.
That night, while dozens of American cities burned, Indianapolis remained peaceful. A white, Ivy-League-educated rich kid trying to pacify a crowd of poor, urban blacks by quoting Greek poetry (as opposed to, say, Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass) at them would sound to the 21st-century woketivist like a tone-deaf assertion of privilege that would only inflame the crowd further. That Kennedy’s insistence that suffering, rather than driving us to savagery, can make us wiser and more humane struck home is a testament to the universality of the Western canon.
The Libation Bearers presents a dark side of filial piety, focusing on Orestes as he kills his murderous mother to avenge his father’s death at her hands. Rather than restoring harmony, however, his act of reactionary violence only causes further destruction. The Eumenides offers a solution in which the forces of rage and vengeance are redirected toward the betterment of the polis. In an era of scorched-earth American politics, in which many on both sides believe that the mere vanquishment of the opposing party by any means necessary will be sufficient to usher in utopia, Aeschylus has much to teach us.