Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The overriding theme of the novel is the disintegration of an empire when the forceful spirit that created and sustained it no longer survives. Following the death of Alexander, as each subordinate fends for himself and attempts to salvage whatever he can, the empire dissolves amid rivalries, jealousies, renewal of old grudges, hatred, violence, and treachery. The title reflects a grim irony: The funeral games are the disruptions and destructiveness of those Alexander left behind.

Critics have pointed to the conflict in Renault’s Greek novels between the Apollonian ideals of reason, grace, and moderation and the Dionysian spirit of destructiveness and disorder. In Funeral Games, the Dionysian spirit is loosed with a vengeance. The barbarous violence instigated by Perdikkas, when he has the elephants trample his enemies in full view of the army, signals its onset; from that point, the Dionysian spirit reigns.

A major motif, perhaps the novel’s most pervasive motif, is death through poisoning. The aged Queen Sisygambis, mother of Darius, recalls that in the reign of King Ochos, poisoning was common practice. In the narrative, Iollas poisons Alexander at the instigation of Kassandros, Roxane poisons Stateira and Drypetis, and Kassandros poisons Roxane and Alexander IV. Afterward, he attempts to poison Alexander’s memory and reputation by suborning Greek historians to defame him. The numerous deaths, many by treachery and stealth,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)