Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

Dedicated to Mary Renault, whose well-known series on the Greek hero Theseus and other re-creations of the classical past set a benchmark for historical fiction, The Firebrand chronicles the fall of Troy and the return of King Agamemnon to Greece, bearing as his prize the Trojan princess Kassandra. Familiar from Homer, Aeschylus, and Euripides, these tales are rendered more fabulous by Renault's use of archeological traditions which celebrate the Bronze Age cultures which were giving way before the invasion of iron-using tribes from the north. These tribes also brought with them new gods, the Olympians, and new social forms, the patriarchal rule of state and family and the subjection and enclosure of women. The closing scene of Bradley's novel, far different from that of Aeschylus, adopts a tradition discovered in a tablet in Athens' Archaeological Museum in which the Zakynthians claim lineage from Kassandra who, freed from her captivity to Agamemnon by Klytemnestra, has established a dynasty loyal to the "old ways" which revere the Great Goddess displaced by the new gods of the Akhaians and Aphrodite, their creation, whose vanity led Paris to slight Poseidon and the river deities, spelling the defeat of Troy.

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The central conflict Bradley presents in the epic is that between Apollo, the Sun Lord, whose dominion over the oracles gives Kassandra her gift of prophecy, and the Great Goddess, the Earth Mother, into whose mysteries Kassandra was initiated in Colchis, Medea's city, where the old ways still rule and Queen Imandra holds her throne herself. In such parts of the world as Troy, where the old ways are beginning to erode, Queen Hecuba, Kassandra's mother, has given over much of her birthright to King Priam, who rules in the Akhaian fashion and will pass his heritage on to his sons, not his daughters. Thus Colchis becomes Kassandra's spiritual home and Imandra her spiritual mother, to whom she returns after escaping besieged Troy and then Mykenae itself, where she learns the ways of the Great Snakes, the serpent lore which represents the old ways and whose wisdom remains hidden in the hearts of its initiates. Along with this wisdom goes her training as a warrior with the Amazon queen Penthesilea, her aunt, whose forces finally fall in the defense of Troy and who, along with the Kentaurs, represent ways more in tune with the Great Goddess and the natural world. On the opposite sides are the Greeks (Akhaians), epitomized by the monstrous Akhilles, who dishonors Hector's slain corpse and rapes the dead Penthesilea, and Agamemnon, the arrogant, cold-hearted Mykenean king whose self-gratifying pride destroys not only Troy, but ultimately himself as well.

One of the strongest elements in Bradley's historical fiction is the depiction of intense family ties, both positive and negative. Kassandra's relationships with her mother, sisters, and brothers is an emotional center of the novel, her destiny to be forever seeing and forever ignored is worked out against the backdrop of conflict over Paris' return to Troy with Helen, wife of the Greek Menelaus. One theme found in Bradley's works is that of emotional sensitivity and intimate communication, including the ability to know other's thoughts and feel other's feelings, as Kassandra does with her spoiled, headstrong twin brother Paris, as well as to be forced to see and compelled to speak the future—Troy in flames. Part of the curse placed on her by Apollo is not to be understood or to be constantly misunderstood, as Kassandra is by her mother and sisters, from whom she is compelled to seek emotional attachment from other women more able to support her independence and "differentness," especially the Greek Helen, who is also mistrusted by the others.

Love and emotional fulfillment are also present when Kassandra, a maiden dedicated to the service of the Sun Lord in his temple at Troy, meets the Greek Aeneas, her sister Creusa's husband. One of the few positive male figures in The Firebrand, Aeneas' special destiny as the carrier of the Trojan heritage to Rome shows in his gentleness, his respect for women and the old ways. Their brief affair, set in the last days before earthquake and the invading Akhaians, is a tender interlude before the destruction of Priam's family and Kassandra's rape by the Greek muscleman Ajax before becoming Agamemnon's battle prize. Freed to return to her beloved Colchis by the avenging Klytemnestra, Kassandra is left to carry on the alternative epic of the Trojan women and with her son Agathon to create a new heritage for her race in a new city "far to the west . . . where men and women need not be enemies," very much a switch from the tragic endings of Greek epic and drama, where Kassandra shares Agamemnon's fate, assassinated at the hand of Klytemnestra.

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