3 out of 4 stars
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Our protagonist, Leotychides, was once told an allegory about a boy who hid a fox in his cloak, and bore a painful death silently, as the creature gnawed through him, because he shunned the option of shaming himself by admitting his theft of it, in the first place. This parable, alluded to by M. N. J. Butler in the title, sets the tone for the work in entirety. The Fox is a tale of forbearance, discipline, love and betrayal. Essentially, this is an account that names the ‘foxes,’ or internal struggles, under the cloaks of various individuals like King Agis, Queen Timaia, Antalkidas, and Queen Eurydame, who may be familiar to enthusiasts of history, anthropology, or even Greek culture as a whole.
The tale begins with King Philippos of Macedonia asking Leotychides to write an autobiography, and continues, alternating between the present tense; where he resides at the Macedonian court, and past tense; as he recounts the occurrences in his life that led him there. Leotychides had been the heir of King Agis of Sparta, rumored to be the queen’s bastard. The veritable beast in the belly of this warrior takes on several facets through the epic, persistently donning the personas of bitterness, because of his father’s coldness; wounded pride, on being deposed from his throne by Agisilaos due to his alleged illegitimacy; but principally, desolation and fury caused by the death of loved ones he is ill-fated to outlive. This ultimate fox demanded vengeance, but he could not succumb, as a slave to his upbringing, devotee of the Law, and a true Spartan, with an all-encompassing desire to never shame those he cared about.
After his barefaced usurpation, King Agisilaos’ actions and decisions gradually bring death and great suffering to Sparta, as well as the destruction of its great name. This was the result of the weak man’s inability to stomach his own fox, leading to a fierce war against Thebes.
What I loved most about this account was that Butler took the perspective of a largely ignored factual character, and breathed life into a yarn mainly represented as a brief note in the glossaries of articles about more famous children of Hellas. The narrative, while being about Sparta’s fall from glory, is predominantly about people. It is portrayed through the voice of Leotychides; imbued with passionate patriotism; from his childhood, through youth, adulthood and into his twilight years, depicting the highs, lows and the people with him through it all.
These chronicles are written beautifully in a flowing manner through which the author successfully depicts that death of the spirit can be just as painful and final as that of the body, as one is no longer truly alive if his reason for being so is gone, and he has resigned himself to simply getting by, as merely a shade of his previous person.
Furthermore, the author put in significant effort in the copious research necessary in making an account so historically accurate. Noteworthy, also, is the ingenuity he applied in bridging gaps in knowledge, resolving documented contradictions and creating characters to make this narrative more memoiristic than instructional.
On the other hand, the book had some failings that were additional to its need of further editing, which was evidenced by an overabundance of missing or wrongly placed quotation marks. Firstly, the requisite nostalgia of one recalling youth while in their old age is absent in the first part of the book, which details the protagonist’s childhood and self-discovery. Moreover, the ‘present’ segments of the story are a bit dull and quite fleeting, which detracts from their purpose.
Reading The Fox results in knowing about the characters, as opposed to knowing them. Sadly, there is some missing depth in in the characters, who are somewhat nuanced, though insufficiently so. For instance, Leotychides speaks of his love for Doreius since youth, but I could not infer why, as all that was said of him was that he was of extraordinary beauty, skill and discipline. Additionally, I did not discern much supporting Leotychides’ love, other than a few proclamations, conversations and gifts. I did not see him noticing Doreius, thinking about him when he was alone, or even being a little flustered when the beautiful youth speaks to him. It is not that I doubt his love for Doreius, nor am I implying that his reasons in loving him were superficial, but that I think these feelings, and the majority of those between the other characters, were a bit shallowly expressed. This, coupled with the flat descriptions of characters, lends to that feeling of simply knowing of them. Consequently, no attachments were made; I found myself reacting to the deaths of comrades with only a slight stirring of emotion (if any), similar to how one is never truly mournful when they read about the death of a random biblical character. Maybe it was intentional; there is every chance that true Spartan men did not spend their time journaling about their feelings, thus Leotychides’ perspective would be rightly displayed in this slightly clinical manner.
As the successes outweigh the failings of the work, I rate it 3 out of 4; with its realistic plot, it would appeal to non-fiction readers, especially those with a leaning towards history, sociology, politics and military strategy. I would not recommend it to romantics, or those who like fast-paced novels, as this one is true to the autobiographical form, in that there are some slow stretches before the action begins.
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