Freedom or Death is a colorful story full of symbolic motifs. In it, Nikos Kazantzakis depicts his own experiences as a child in Meghalo Kastro. He recalled that in 1889 Christians in his village killed a prominent Turkish dignitary, which triggered a new Turkish massacre of Cretan civilians. “My mother, my sister, and I sat glued to one another,” Kazantzakis said, “barricaded within our house.” Turks outside cursed, broke down doors, and slaughtered Christians. His father, standing with a loaded musket and his long knife unsheathed, told the family he planned to slaughter them before they fell into Turkish hands.
Kazantzakis altered much of his personal history, yet many characters and episodes match real persons and events, and the character of Kosmas embodies Kazantzakis’s politics and experiences as an expatriate. Kosmas, like Kazantzakis, studies in Germany, travels throughout Russia, and marries a Russian-Jewish girl. Kosmas, like Kazantzakis, is a follower of Henri-Louis Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche and has Marxist tendencies.
Kazantzakis’s central plot is derived from a famous Cretan folk song about a 1770 revolt led by a teacher named Dhaskaloyannis. With a band of eight hundred Sphakians, the hero held off twenty-five thousand Turkish regulars for several weeks. Both in the 1770 revolt and in the revolt of 1889 chronicled in Freedom or Death, the Russians promised assistance that they never delivered. Dhashkaloyannis surrendered but refused to sign a truce, stoically accepting torture and death.
In Freedom or Death, past and present, fact and fiction, art and life, and dream and reality are often indistinguishable. This is a reflection of both the Cretan sense of history and Kazantzakis’s own interest in Freudian and Jungian conceptions of the interrelationship between the conscious and the unconscious. Characters in the novel may seem exaggerated, scenes overly dramatic, and people and events inflated, unreal, and larger than life. In this, the work reflects Cretan sensibility, a synthesis of mythology and reality. Greek mythology by its nature is a colorful and fantastic reflection of Greek views of humans, God, nature, and death. These are the primitive forces that generate mythology to inspire hope and relieve anxiety. Kazantzakis’s Freedom or Death was created within that tradition.
Anthropomorphic and metaphorical characterization, including animal imagery, is dominant in the novel. Michales is referred to as wild boar, dragon, lion, bull, and...
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