Alexander of Macedon, you persistent, provocative ghost, you.
A couple of days ago I did a guest Q&A at Alyx Dellamonica’s University of Toronto creative writing class. One of the students asked me what my trajectory had been—how and when I’d started writing; what I’d written. I talked about my first book, completed when I was in grade 8, whose beginning, middle, and end were shaped entirely by wish fulfillment and Portentously Capitalized Nouns. Then I mentioned what came after: something completely different in form and style—though still motivated by wish fulfillment—written when I was 15, 16, and 17. This was a series of stories (which I’ve referred to before, on this blog) about Alexander the Great. It started as one story, an assignment for my grade 10 English class—but it was so exhilarating to write that the others spilled out, mostly over successive Christmas breaks. I remember how fevered the writing of them was. Who should I be now? His first wife? His lover? His sister? How about Aristotle? Sure! Why not! (Thankfully, though I wasn’t smart enough to avoid taking a stab at Aristotle’s voice, I was smart enough not to allow the result into the final draft of the collection.)
After I finished The Book Of Portentously Capitalized Nouns, I was convinced it was publication-worthy. I was 14! And I’d finished something book-esque! Surely that made me a sensation waiting to be discovered! It took me awhile to internalize (thanks to the lovingly, brutally honest feedback of some grown-ups in my life) the fact that publication was not what this book was intended for. Having railed against, then learned this lesson, I never believed my Alexander stories were destined for bookstores. But I loved them with an abiding love, and I knew that they were better than what I’d written before, and that was something.
For 20 years, despite the abiding love thing, I mostly forgot about Alexander. In 2005, casting about desperately for my next idea, I remembered him. At last it was time to base a fantasy novel on Alexander’s life! Three novels, even! Yes!
But, after 40,000 words, no.
I mostly forgot about him again—until 2007, when Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin asked me to write a short story for their anthology, Ages of Wonder. An anthology about myths. About history. About…well, why not. Surprised and delighted that I could go back again, I wrote one more Alexander story, “To Play the Game of Men”, narrated by Bucephalus. His horse.
Back to a couple of days ago. When I got home from Alyx’s class, I discovered that an interview I’d done back in the fall with Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille was online. There was Alexander again, mentioned as Derek and I talked about the influence Mary Renault’s books had on us, as much younger people.
And just last night, out for dinner at the home of some friends, there he was again: Mr. Macedonian Conquerer, raising his golden, widow’s-peaked head in a conversation that started with long-range sniper rifles, moved on to Zweihänder swords, and ended up waaay back, with Alexander’s perfection of the phalanx.
There are salient, craft-related things to be gleaned, amidst the nostalgia. Like: Trying to write about Alexander without actually being in his head taught me a whole lot about point of view. And: I learned how to interpret a historical period I could never truly know. And: I found out what creative failure felt like, and I lived.
So it might not be too much of a stretch to say that Alexander made me the writer I’ve been, from 1984 to the present. And the beauty of his permanence is that I get to forget him, then remember, making the very old very new, all over again.
For those of you who are still with me: here’s one of the (shortest of the) stories, written when I was about 17.
Amyntas, to Macedon
…I know not what to think, Father, nor what to feel but this emptiness. I have just seen him, I think for the last time. Alexander barely lives.
The omens of late have been bad, to be sure. The first portent occurred shortly after we left Ecbatana, and the shadow of Hephaestion’s death. Alexander and his officers were taking refreshment in a room outside the throne room; Straton and I were nearby. We heard, as the officers did, the first terrified wails of the eunuchs in the throne room. We arrived shortly after Alexander did, and stared with horror at the scene.
There was a man upon the throne. He was bent and frail, with bony hands and wrinkled arms. A stream of unintelligible words came from his mouth as he rocked himself slowly back and forth. I remember that his eyes were bright, glittering with madness. And there he sat, on Alexander’s chair, while the eunuchs moaned and did nothing.
In Persia, it is a capital offence to sit on the Great King’s throne. We all knew this. Seers were called to interpret the event; they told the king that this was far more serious than simple disrespect. This, they said, was a symbol of disaster. The madman was tortured; it was thought that he might have been involved in a plot. However, no evidence was found. The creature babbled only that he had felt like sitting there, and knew of no reason. To prevent the bad luck that this confession suggested, he was put to death.
The portents did not end there. A second was observed as Alexander was sailing back to Babylon after investigating the irrigation of the farms downstream. He was apparently in good spirits, and had taken the tiller of his own ship. There was a wind over the floodlands that day; it caught the hat he was wearing and swept the band off, into a clump of rushes. These rushes happened to be growing beside a tomb. Alexander seemed to be concerned only at the loss of the diadem, which bore the royal colours of purple and white. As he worried, a seaman leapt off the boat and swam over to retrieve it. He discovered that he could not carry it back without getting it wet, and therefore tied it around his head. Again, the seers foresaw disaster. Alexander appeared untroubled; he had the man beaten, but later gave him a talent of silver for his efforts.
I suppose that we should have seen. But the Persian Gulf expedition was near, and Alexander had shown himself to be immune to both sickness and injury; we did not think of death. But then, as far as we could see, neither did Alexander.
He was stricken with fever after drinking at Medius’. There are rumours of poison, of course, but I doubt them. Medius is a good man, and a faithful friend to Alexander. In any case, the King fell ill. He had to be carried by litter to make the daily offering at the altar, but still he spoke with confidence, as if the sickness would soon be out of him. The plans for the expedition continued; Alexander only altered them by a few days. A week went by, and he worsened. Soon he could no longer make the offering once at the altar. Yet still he briefed his officers, still he spoke (though weakly) of the coming campaign. No doctor was summoned, for he had lost all faith in them with Hephaestion’s death.
He had been staying in the gardens, but on the tenth day of his illness, he ordered himself to be carried back within the palace. He called for his chief officers to stand before him, and for his junior officers to assemble outside the doors. But when all were there, and an expectant hush had fallen, nothing could be done. Alexander had lost the use of his voice.
He remained in the royal bedchamber after that, only able to whisper a word or two. Of course, we the common soldiers knew nothing of this. We had all seen him being carried about; he always smiled at us, or waved. We imagined that he would soon be well, for most of us had fallen ill somewhere in Asia.
But then, for two days, we did not see him. The officers would not answer our questions. The palace shimmered in the heat, its gates closed and Alexander within.
On that second day, we could endure no more. We rushed to the gates, crying loudly to see the King. We shouted that the death of Alexander was being kept from us and demanded to see him with our own eyes, whether he was alive or dead.
The officers appeared, listened to us, then vanished within once more. They were gone for quite a while. And then, at last, we were told to come in.
I have just discovered that it was Alexander who, with a nod, ordered us to be brought in. His officers were determined to refuse, but, even without his voice, Alexander is forceful. In we came, single file, through a door at the far end of the bedchamber. He was lying in the enormous bed, covered in a light white sheet. As the first man entered, he turned himself on the pillows, drawing himself up to meet us. We passed slowly and silently, though some wept quietly. And to every one of us he gave a sign, whether it was from his eyes or with a tilt of his head. Not one of us went unnoticed.
It is now night. Very few of us are sleeping. It is too hot, and the silence is oppressive. At any moment, we are expecting to hear the first wails from the palace. Peucestas and six of Alexander’s friends are spending the night at the temple of Sarapis, praying for him. I do not know how much that will do. Not that I have seen him, I do not believe that anything will save him. His body, compact and muscular only a few weeks ago, is now thin and frail. Only his eyes are still alive; they shine from the mask of his face, hopelessly defiant.
Father, I will be home as soon as he has died. I cannot stay in this strange land any longer, not without Alexander. What would we do? Who would lead us? He is the light that has driven us on, even in times of despair. Without him, his men will lose their unity and their purpose. I am already sure that there will be much bloodshed, for he has not named a successor. I do not wish to be caught up in the chaos. I want no part in the coming struggle for power. I want only to be home, away from the heat and cruelty of this place.
How long has it been since I saw your face? Nine years? Twelve? I cannot be sure. Much time has passed, that I know, since a young Macedonian king drew me away from my country. Straton and me both. We were but boys, so eager and confident of glory.
I must attempt to sleep now, for I will doubtless have need of strength in the coming days. Strange, that I do not yet feel grief. Only emptiness, consuming and cold.
I bid farewell to you, Father, but knowing that it will not be for long. Soon I will be home.