Victor Davis Hanson, known as VDH to his fans, has a new book out. This time, it’s a novel, The End of Sparta. He talked with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Greeks and the novel.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Did you enjoy recreating this world?
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Yes, a great deal. The story of how Epaminondas freed the Messenian helots and ended Sparta as a major power was one of the great dramas of the ancient world — every bit as moving as Thermopylae or Salamis. But for a variety of reasons — from the prejudices of the contemporary historian Xenophon to the loss of Plutarch’s much later Epaminondas — we never got the full account. I wanted to set the record straight, as it were.
So I brought back the history of his grand march according to two general principles. One, nothing in The End of Sparta would be inconsistent with those things that we do know actually happened. And the characters whom I added to the drama would reflect the sorts of real people we know from Greek literature and history.
Two, I wanted to immerse the reader into the Greek world of the fourth century b.c., in every sense of the word — politics, religion, war, agriculture, even to the degree of having the novel’s narrative follow the style of Greek prose grammar and syntax, although I understood that to many that effort at authenticity might come at the expense of easy readability.
HANSON: Fiction is much harder than nonfiction. In history, one gathers clues like a detective, tries to present an honest account of what most likely happened, and writes a narrative according to what we know and, where we aren’t absolutely sure, what might be most likely to have happened, within the generally accepted rules of evidence and sources.
But in fiction, the writer is not quite an investigator or interpreter, but more a creator of reality. And in the case of the ancient world, that means one cannot have characters thinking in terms of things like “minutes” or “seconds” or “weeks,” or having any inkling of the scientific world post 369 b.c., or adopting any modern social or cultural mores. After writing the first three pages, I realized what a genius someone like Tolkien was — he invented an entire world (much harder than recreating one from history), whose presence is as omnipresent as it is often only alluded to. Beneath the veneer of his text lies an entire larger world of fabricated lineages, histories, and languages.