Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece -- and Western Civilization - Barry Strauss

"Stifling in the August heat, even at night, Artermisium is a hub of activity. Seen by the light of bonfires, fifty thousand men are at work: here racing to patch damaged equipment, there hauling the bodies of the dead onto pyres, at one point filling water jugs and wineskins at the sprint, at another point leaving messages as disinformation for the enemy, who is close behind them. Some men are buckling on bronze helmets, others are tightening the leather straps of the arrow cases they carry on their backs, while most are holding nothing more than a seat pad made of sheepskin. As the men work, the area's familiar scents of brine, thyme, and pine needles mix with the odor of sweat and the stink of corpses.

The cove is lined, at the shore's edge, with about 250 triremes, moored stern first. From each ship, a pair of ladders comes down and a horde of blistered hands grabs onto the rungs, as rowers pull themselves up toward their seats. The rowers grunts mix with the crackle of firewood, while the cries of the rowing masters drown out other sounds.

The Greek navy is pulling out."
- Excerpt, The Battle of Salamis, Barry Strauss

Building a strong and compelling picture of an event in the distant past, of the forces that drove its occurence and of the people that lived through it is not an easy task. Historians as a breed seem often narrow, didactic and detail-obsessed, taking the most fascinating moments and devolving them down to dry and dusty factual points, sending another generation of students drifting into the land of Nod in the back rows of the lecture hall.

The Battle of Salamis is not that type of history book. Barry Strauss has penned a superlative and riveting account of the epic naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC between the Greeks, led by the fledgling democracy of Athens and the canny, manipulative and vain Themistocles, and the overwhelming Persian forces of Xerxes.

Strauss vividly portrays the key individuals, events and circumstances, drawing on chronicles of both participants such as Aeschylus, and the later accounts of "the first historian" Herodotus, among others. The result is an amazingly readable account of the battle, the ships (triremes), the tactics (drawing the enemy into enclosed waters where speed and manuverability mattered more than size...and ramming, lots of ramming), and the long-term impact of the battle through the history of the western world (Greek victory at Salamis = success for democracy).

Strauss's efforts to portray the turning of the battle as one of democracy versus authoritarianism feels slightly overstated given the limitations on democracy at the time in both Athens (and the lack thereof in the other Greek city states) but the long-term historical impact certainly reverberates to this day.

Strauss has mastered the ability to give the reader a feel for the action, normally the strict purview of fiction writers, illustrating the event beyond just bare facts. In his words you can taste the woodsmoke and sweat, feel the thick knot of fear in the rowers stomachs and hear the creak of the oars and the thunderous crescendo of splintering wood before the rams...

Overall Strauss has written a crackling good history that is well worth your time.

Interesting in reading more? On the fiction side, I highly recommend Stephen Pressfield's amazing Gates of Fire, an epic account of the 300 Spartans who faced Xerxes before Thermopylae, The Hot Gates and also (by the same author) the book Tides of War covering the Athenian soldier Alcibiades. Tides of War in particular has a brutal, rip-snorting trireme battle at Syracuse that, in my opinion, ranks with the best of Hornblower as a naval battle scene.

Read Herodotus's account of the Battle of Salamis here, or visit modern Salamis here for a look at the island today.

Interested in learning more about Herodotus, the world's first modern historian (also called "The Father of Lies")? Check out Herodotus on the Web for a comprehensive link list or go to Herodotus's Histories. You can read Herodotus complete works online here.

For some details on triremes visit The Classics Pages, this site , or this one. Want to build one? Check out the Trireme Trust.

Thanks for reading BookLinker!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Hobbit

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

"Confusticate and bebother those dwarves!." - Bilbo Baggins

I first read The Hobbit at the grand old age of eleven and, at the time, thought it was one of the very best books I had ever encountered. Interestingly enough, more than 25 years later, it still remains a marvelous piece of work in my eyes. As a matter of fact, I just finished re-reading it with my six-year old son and the re-read brought with it the added joy of watching something you grew up with light up your child's eyes.
Chronicling the intrepid journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire (with just a little bit too much Took in him for his own good) who is shanghaied from his own tea party by a group of thirteen treasure-seeking dwarves and one irascible wizard, The Hobbit is a delightful read. Bilbo is recruited by the wizard Gandalf to become the official "burglar" for Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve dwarven companions, as they journey across the Edge of the Wild to the far distant Lonely Mountain to face the implacable malevolence of the dragon Smaug.
From troll-hollows to the dreary spider-infested forest of Mirkwood, Tolkien has woven a wonderful adventure, leavened with character, humor, spark and a thread of a greater darkness tracing through the story, evident in the hissing fury of the riddling Gollum and in the deep and abiding malice that lurks behind the conversational tone of Smaug.  
It is particularly different to revisit The Hobbit after having read Tolkiens' larger, more mythic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which expanded the world of Middle-Earth exponentially and, to a certain extent, removed it from Bilbo's more comforting adventure and warmer tale.

All in all The Hobbit is about as close to a perfect bedtime read for the kids as you are likely to find on any shelf. 
While The Lord of the Rings has been brought to vivid life in the theatres, The Hobbit is apparently tied up in legal wrangling over the movie rights. Here's hoping that Peter Jackson gets the chance to bring The Hobbit to the silver screen in the near future. In the meantime, I recommend the 1978 animated feature which was a solid (if short) adaptation featuring Otto Preminger and John Huston among others.
Visit the Tolkien Society, or to learn something more about the creator of Middle-earth, read J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.
Here's a real-world hobbit that has scientest puzzled and intrigued...

And here's a dragon to boot..

There are absolutely tons of websites dedicated to the Lord of the Rings films but for the best info, check out theonering.net. Tour Middle-Earth at this site...

You can also find a movie trailer for The Hobbit at iFilm patched together from various sources. No, as far as I know it isn't real ...yet.

Thanks for reading .  Comments, links and feedback are always welcome!