In a vivid depiction of Ancient Greece and its legendary heroes, The Mask of Apollo tells the story of Nikeratos, the gifted tragic actor at the centre of political and cultural activity in Athens, 400 B. C.
Wherever he goes, Nikeratos carries a golden mask of Apollo, a relic and reminder of an age when the theatre was at the height of its greatness and talent. Only a mascot at first, the mask gradually turns into Nikeratos' conscience as he encounters famous thinkers, actors, and philosophers, including the famous Plato himself.
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The Author, Mary Renault, UNMASKED by her Apollo
Niko is successful and buys a house in Athens, one morning while practicing his vocal exorcises, he hears an echo. The echo belongs to a youth from Thessaly, named Thetails, who longs to become an actor and was eavesdropping to sneak a lesson. Niko takes him on as an extra, with his fathers permission, to train him in acting; three years later the boy becomes Niko’s paramour. Thetails works his way up to second actor.
In the “Mask of Apollo” Ms. Renault has shared her lifelong love of the theater. Not the theater of today as she acted in and directed when a student or a young nurse in training or theater friends from her later life but the theater of the ancient Greece. She has chosen a witty repartee style of the actors back stage dialog that has a familiar androgens gossipy quality; a shorthand for a modern theatrical image of actors or critics’ at leisure. To that she marries deep pagan spirituality of service to the youth god Apollo bringer of healing and death. The point-of-view narrator of the book is the fictional actor Nikeratos AKA Niko. She has chosen to have Niko commune with the god Apollo through internal thought dialog while focused on the god’s antique theater mask. The dialog is amazing; it is like eavesdropping on someone’s privet prayer. This device creates the necessary personal sense of spirituality of the soul that reflects ancient Greek beliefs. Niko is the personal, emotional intimate side of the story; the bridge-over-time which the reader/listener travels to the past.
The flip side of the book is the intellectual philosophical view of Plato and his teacher Socrates and their ideal of governance under a philosopher-king as outlined in, “the Republic”. Here Ms. Renault has the blessing of history on her side, as history’s facts frame the basic plot centered on the goal of making Dionysius the younger a real life archetypal philosopher-king. To represent the virtues of the philosopher-king she selects the minor historical figure of Dion of Syracuse, the brother-in-law to the real tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius the elder. Dion is also Uncle to Dionysius the younger. Dion hopes to mentor the tyrant’s son when he succeeds the father to power. In the novel, Dionysius the elder is deeply suspicious of everyone but Dion. In his suspicion, he has failed to teach Dionysius the younger how to rule or any sense of self-discipline or self-esteem, lest he become a rival for the father’s power. Dion is depicted as a member of Plato’s Academy whose virtue is too good to allow him to seek power for himself over family ties and rightful linage. It is a fact that Dion first came to know Plato in his first visit to Syracuse around 387 (388 to 386) BCE when Dion was about 20 years old. Plato fall out with the autocratic Dionysius the elder, over his ideas, and returned to Athens to found the Academy. The book portrays Dion as the perfect man image, just, thoughtful, restrained, modest, man of rank; the image causes Niko to hold Dion in awe. One might say he has star quality. The drama in the story develops when Dionysius the elder dies after his play “The Ransom of Hector” wins the tragedy computation in Athens with Niko in the role of King Priam come to bag Achilles for the body of his son Hector. The book depicts Dion as personally selecting Niko for the play after witnessing his courage in refusing to break character as the god Apollo as a sabotaged rope that supported him flying above the stage begins to give way threatening to dash him upon the stones 30 feet below. Niko is invited to an after party with Dion and Plato where he becomes enamored with Dion. The subtle subtext play of the book seesaw’s back and forth between Plato’s intellectual knowledge approach and Niko’s heart driven emotional knowledge approach; with each approach having its own clear-sight-of reason and blind-spot-to-raw-emotion.
Niko’s theater troop arrives in Syracuse harbor. References are made to the Athenian navel defeat in that harbor in a war illustrated in the author’s book “Last of the Wine” circa 413 BCE. It is now 367 BCE as Niko and his troop enter the harbor of Syracuse to perform the play for its tyrant author they find something is amiss. Dionysius the elder has just died and unrest grips the city that has only known the tyranny control of one man for the past 40 years. The tyranny is hard but has also protected the citizens from the outright terror of being sacked by the Carthaginians.
Niko’s theater troop elects to return to Athens in light of the cities unrest; Niko elects to put his faith in the god’s and is put ashore. He goes first to the theater and then the theater tavern to assess the situation, where he is befriended by a local actor. The city is called to assembly to be addressed by Dionysius the younger who announces that Niko will give his father’s funeral oration. Niko then gets the opportunity to meet and describe the strengths and weaknesses of Dionysius the younger character before meeting with Dion. Niko is entrusted by Dion with secret correspondences for Archytas of Tarentum and Plato at the Academy. Note: (The city state of Tarentum was located at the bottom of the Italian mainland near the inside heel of the boot). Niko’s description of the funeral is sumptuous and theatrical. On the way back to Athens, the ship founders in a storm near Tarentum and the letters are lost but Niko, with his actor’s memory, can relay the essence imparted by Dion to convince Plato to come and help Dion shape Dionysius the younger’s mind toward being a philosopher-king.
The first attempt to educate Dionysius the younger is a disaster. Court intrigues by Philistus, a pardoned general, and others cause suspicion to fall on Dion’s motives and result in his exile to Athens. The author suggests that Dionysius the younger wanted to be first among Plato’s students but did not want to put in the work or renounce the benefits of personal self-indulgent gratification due a tyrant with the power of wealth. The young tyrant is unsure and erratic and is exploring the extent of his power. Plato becomes a guest without freedom to leave until a brushfire war distracts the tyrant and Plato is given permission to leave with a promise to return later.
Plato, having escaped Dionysius the younger collection of trophy guests without freedom, is reluctant to return. In 360 BCE the tyrant mounts a full scale campaign mixing persuasion and coercion to secure Plato’s return. The book says the typing point is when the tyrant threatens to confiscate Dion’s lands that support his exiled Athenian lifestyle. Dion is seen to give way and encourage Plato to go and give the ruler conversion project one more try. At this point the scales fall from Niko’s eyes and he sees his hero as less than a perfect man but still a great one. Plato returns to Syracuse in 360/361 BCE only to have the tyrant double cross him and seize Dion’s lands. Niko’s assessment is that Dionysius the younger motivation is a combination of jealousy of Dion and false pride that he should be first. These extreme of all-or-nothing passions put Plato in danger. Plato’s nephew asks Niko to serve as a messenger again, the message result in a state ship from Archytas of Tarentum being sent to rescue Plato in 361 BCE. In his fury, at having his quarry escape the tyrant used his power to nullify Dion’s marriage and gave her hand to a drinking buddy. Dionysius the younger then begins corrupting Dion’s son into a hedonistic life style of debauchery, to ruin his mind.
After reaching Athens, Niko takes his beloved friend and second actor Thetails to his first Olympiad. There Dion meets Plato fresh from Tarentum. Plato tells Dion about the loss of his property, his wife, and the corruption of his son. Inside Dion something shifts; Dion resolves to make an end of the tyrant. Plato takes the position that Dion had been wronged and deserved satisfaction. How he can accomplish this without debasing himself into mere venial vengeance violating the academy’s principals is no simple trick. The author has introduced doubt into our ideal prefect role model Dion.
By 356 BCE Dion raised an army and crossed to Sicily. The bad government of Dionysius the younger and Philistus has oppressed the people and they pour in to join Dion’s army. The city is freed but harbor fortress remains in control of Dionysius the younger. A siege was laid to the fortress. Ms. Renault envisions a complicated campaign of land forces under Dion and sea forces under a double dealing Heracleides who aspires to be tyrant. Before the fortress falls Heracleides has stirred up the general assembly with populist’s reforms the city is not ready for. In doing so he counts his victory before it is won. The Heracleides faction gets the assembly to drive Dion away as a potential tyrant for opposing the reforms. While attention is focused on this infighting, the fortress gets resupplied by sea and launches a savage attack upon the city by night. There is a very touching scene where Niko and Axiothea, an adventurous cross dressing female follower from the academy, are caught up in the attack. When Dionysius the younger attacks the city, the two take refuge in the city theater. They eye witness the horror of the attack on the city and hear the screams as the temple of Apollo next to the theater is attacked, looted, and profaned. The theater is next. Niko is inspired to use the theater acoustic effect devices to scare the simple looting superstitious soldiers from the theater precinct saving their lives. The trick works, and the next day Niko puts Axeothea aboard ship to returns to Athens. This was a nice bit of theatrical drama on Ms. Renault’s part.
The people, having realized they backed the wrong horse in Heracleides turn back to Dion to save the city. The assembly puts Heracleides on trial. Dion who saved the city persuades the assembly to forgive Heracleides for messing up. Dion is trapped by his own code of ethics not to be vengeful and re-embraces the-Heracleides-snake that has just bitten him. It is not long before he is up to his old tricks again of sowing dissention and factionalism. Eventually Dionysius the younger flees the fortress, leaving his son in charge. The fortress quarantine in the end succeeds and the fortress is surrendered in exchange for safe conduct. Dionysius the younger ends his first rain in exile in 357 BCE.
In many ways Ms. Renault represents a negative critique of the doctrine of a perfect society through perfection of its citizens by modeling the desired virtues. Dion is a pre-Christian, “Jesus-like” figure that returns good for evil, seeks to model golden rule like virtues, and in the end sacrifices his life for his faith in man’s intrinsic goodness if given the proper instruction and chance. Niko on the other hand has faith too, although he accepts man as is with all his flaws, and places his faith in his gods to teach us how to deal with them, flaws and all. The factualism portrayed in Syracuse’s free naive assembly being manipulated by selfish men is harsh criticism of the democratic process. She uses Plato to counter the democracy does not work well argument with the citizenry must be educated to the light in order to do the right and justice argument. The audience is left to choose which is better.
The focus shifts back to Athens with Niko. The academy is following Dion’s progress as a new ruler. Eventually Dion sees the necessity to get Heracleides disruption out of the way and assents to his assassination. His ethics drive him to give the man a state funeral for past service and own his complicity in his death. Rumors arise that Dion’s life is in danger from Callippus, a lifelong hater of all tyrants. Plato’s nephew dispatched Niko to Syracuse to warn him. Niko meets with Dion and delivers the warning. Dion dismisses the warning believing Callippus to be his double agent rooting out his opponents. Dion pays for this trust with his life in 354 BCE. Niko reflects on how welding power has changes Dion and in part corrupted his principles. His ideals have come crashing into the reality and the necessities of power.
The book flashes forward a dozen years with Niko and his now mature paramour Thetails going out on independent theater tours and getting back together to share their lives and love. In many ways this sub-set of paired committed characters mirror the author’s relationship with her paramour Julie Mullard. Thetails advises Niko to go to Pella in Macedon and preform. There he finds a young Alexander at his performance accompanied by his significant other Hephaistion. There is a back stage meeting that bookend a similar meeting with Dion at the start of the book. Niko compares the intellectual icy coolness of Dion academy approach with the “fire from heaven” intelligence of the young Alexander. This quality comes forth when Alexander questions why Achilles did not kill Agamemnon at the start of the Trojan War. Then his paramour Patroclus would have not died and he would have brought victory in two years rather than ten, being the better commander. In this one sees the foreshadowing of Alexander’s fine strategic military mind questioning the battles in the Iliad as well as his leadership swagger and self-confidence. This meeting also foreshadows what is to come in her book, “Fire from Heaven”; followed by “the Persian Boy’ and then “Funeral Games” to complete the Alexander trilogy. This book was also the foreshadowed fulfillment of her book “Last of the Wine.” It covers the end of the Peloponnesian War and fall of Athens to Sparta including the sea battle in Syracuse bay trapping Athens army. But that is another time another book and another review.
Recommendation: If one is a historical novel enthusiast, as am I, by all means listen to this book. The pace is wonderful, the characters are rich and textured, the plot is as tangled as a kitten in yarn, and the actual history is respected. Ms. Renault shows herself to have been a fine scholar of both history and the human heart. She uses history much like the forked branches of a tree; then uses the daub and wattle of her characters and mini plots to fashion a homey nest. Into this nest she fills the egg shell of Syracuse history with her all too human story plot lines. She broods over plot details until they make as much sense to the heart as Plato’s logic does to the head. When her plot breaks she nurtures the infant chick until it can soar on its own. Now with Mr. Edwards's narration the story, it has the wings of eagles. Never has history been so much fun to absorb.
Reviewer Note: In writing this review I have included tidbits from the author’s biography (1905 to 1983) by David Sweetman. She was an intensely privet person with a public mask to keep ill will away. Part of this was her nature and part was the time period in which she lived. The fact that she had a long term life partner, Julia, explains in part her tender treatment of historical same sex relationships in her works. In this book one such pairing was female. I think this couple was some sort of privet joke reference to Julia and herself. I see Axiothea as Ms. Renault masked appearance in the book. I see Axiothea paramour Lasthenia as representing Julia. They are young and idealized and represent their hope for the future for their kind.
Observation: Congratulation to Audible for completing Mr. Renault catalog of historical novels with The Mask of Apollo. The following is the chronological list by historic period covered, now available on Audible:
1. The King Must Die (Pre-history-myth: circa 1900 - 1450 BCE) — The birth of demigod Theseus up to his father's death. Bull dancing in the palace of King Minos of Crete. Destruction by Poseidon earthquake ends Crete’s tyranny.
2. The Bull from the Sea (Pre-history-myth: circa 1900 – 1450 BCE) — The remainder of Theseus' life. Be sure to get the unabridged version.
3. The Praise Singer (556 – 468 BCE) — Point of view the poet Simonides of Keos. Examines the fall of the Ionian colonies, the tyrant of Samos Polycrates, & Archon’s of Athens, Pisistratus and his two sons Hippias and Hipparchus.
4. The Last of the Wine (431-404 BCE) — set in Athens during the Peloponnesian War; the narrator is a student of Socrates.
5. The Mask of Apollo (387 – 342 BCE) — A fictional actor at the time Plato and Dionysius the Younger tyrant of Syracuse (brief appearance by Alexander near the end of the book).
6. Fire from Heaven (352 – 336 BCE) — Alexander the Great from the age of four up to his father's death.
7. The Persian Boy (336 – 323 BCE) — Bagoas perspective, Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia.
8. Funeral Games (323 – 283 BCE) — Alexander's successors from Ptolemy & Bagoas prospective.
Barnaby Edwards narrated both this book and The Praise Singer. He has 49 other Audible books to his credit. He shifts his voice from character to character effortlessly. In this offering he catches Thetails mid mouth full of food, trying to speak, that is just wonderful. Kudus again, for a job well-done Barnaby!
- P. Toscano