Freedom or Death

by Nikos Kazantzakis

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Captain Michales is obsessed with the ideal of freedom. He does not listen to his wife or to the elders of Meghalo Kastro. Turks, with the exception of Michales’s boyhood friend Nuri Bey, are Michales’s natural enemies. Counterbalancing this obsession is Michales’s attraction to Nuri’s wife, Eminé. He is enraptured by her beauty and enchanting voice, but he realizes that this attraction interferes with his total dedication to the liberation of Crete. Another problem is his heavy drinking bouts, which are usually followed by senseless cruelty toward Turks.

At the same gathering at which Eminé first captivates Michales, another Cretan fighter, Captain Polyxigis, also falls under her spell. It is Polyxigis who eventually wins Eminé’s heart and becomes her lover. Michales is jealous of Polyxigis, although he respects him as a comrade in arms.

Polyxigis’s success in winning Eminé does not stop Michales from trying to impress her. In a contest of strength, Michales wins a match over Nuri, who is devastated and feels ineffectual in the eyes of Eminé. Nuri becomes further humiliated in a fight with Michales’s brother Manusakas. Although he manages to kill Manusakas, Nuri is permanently emasculated by a knife wound.

Michales, hearing of his brother’s murder, renounces his childhood friendship with Nuri and vows revenge. When the opportune moment comes, however, he finds Nuri in a pathetic condition and relents. Nuri, who wanted to die in battle, loses his manhood, his wife, his friend, and his honor. He commits suicide. Nuri’s death saddens Michales but emboldens Polyxigis to propose marriage to Eminé. He succeeds in converting her from Islam to Christianity.

The war intensifies. The Turks make major advances and pillage many towns, slaughtering the inhabitants. Michales with two hundred rebels and sixty-five monks defends the monastery of Arkadi for two days and nights against fifteen thousand Turks. In the midst of the fighting, Michales receives word that Eminé was captured by Turks. He and a group of his men rush off to rescue her. By the time he returns, the monastery is on the verge of collapse. He feels guilt and shame. He refuses to surrender in spite of the odds. All other officers and troops retreat except Michales and a few of his devoted followers.

Michales’s dedication is infectious and transforms others. His brother Tityros, an ineffectual schoolteacher, gets involved in petty domestic rivalries that result in his killing his brother-in-law. His wife, Vangelio, heartbroken over her brother’s death, kills herself. These events and his brother’s influence spur a spiritual transformation in Tityros. He becomes a revolutionary.

Another transformation takes place in Kosmas, Michales’s nephew. Kosmas is an intellectual who is studying at a German university. He surprises his family by coming home with Noemi, his Russian-Jewish wife. Upon their arrival, Sefakas, Kosmas’s grandfather, dies. The family thinks it is time for Michales to retreat and to come home. Kosmas volunteers to go to the mountains to persuade his uncle to return. He carries letters from the family and from the elders of Crete that accept failure of the revolt and request Michales’s return.

When he enters the trenches where Michales is valiantly fighting the Turks, Kosmas is strongly affected by his uncle’s idealism. Instead of trying to persuade him to come back, he joins in the fighting. Shortly afterward, the young freedom fighter is captured and beheaded by the Turks.

When the Turks finally ram through the gate of the monastery, a Cretan fighter fires his pistol into an underground powder vault where six hundred women and children are hiding. All perish, together with everyone at the monastery, including the hundreds of Turks who had already entered.

Michales grabs his nephew’s severed head by the hair and, raising it like a banner, charges the enemy roaring, “Freedom or . . .” Before he can finish the famous Cretan slogan, the Turkish bullets find their target.

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