“Gates of Fire” – Bookcast #42

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae (1998) by Steven Pressfield

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Overview of “Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

  • A very brief description of “Gates of Fire”
    • At Thermopylae, a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece, 300 Spartan soldiers engaged in a suicide mission – to save their country they must hold the pass against the invading millions of the mighty Persian army. Day after bloody day they withstood the terrible onslaught, buying time for the Greeks to rally their forces and eventually overcome the world’s most powerful empire. This is the story of the Spartan’s legendary feat – the greatest military stand in history.
  • What Pressfield sets out to do / Purpose of the book
    • Pressfield’s goal in the book isn’t just to tell the spectacular legend of the 300 Spartan warriors, but to to explain how their children – born into a cult of spiritual courage, physical endurance, and unmatched battle skill – were raised to become men and women capable of accomplishing the impossible.
  • The intended audience of the book / Who will benefit most
    • People who love action and adventure stories
    • People who historical novels
    • People who love philosophy – and especially philosophy in action
    • People who want to learn how to die well
    • People who want to understand war – in all its glory and horror
    • People who are obsessed with super buff men in tiny outfits beating each other to a bloody pulp
  • Who probably WON’T like this book?
    • People who can’t handle extreme, graphic violence
    • People who think war is always stupid and unnecessary
    • People who like easy-reading books (and don’t want to look up words – especially in other languages)
    • People who hated reading The Iliad or The Odyssey in High School
  • How does Gates of Fire specifically benefit Men? 
    • This book has MANY things to teach men. It’s required reading at West Point, the United States Naval Academy, and at the Marine Corps Basic School. It’s about honor, skill, courage in the face of insurmountable odds, sacrifice, brotherhood, death, romance, love and so much more.
  • Is this book Easy, Average or Difficult to read? / How long is it?
    • The book is brilliant and very enjoyable but is also very dense with warfare terminology and historical and archaic terminology (plus dozens of Greek words). It’s not easy reading but it’s worth the work.
    • 531 pages, (Audiobook is 14 hours and 55 minutes)
  • What are the overall book reviews? Is the book well-known? Popular? Significant?
    • Kindle: 5,070 ratings, 4.7 stars
      • #130 in Education & Reference 
      • #135 in Military Historical Fiction
      • #248 in U.S. Historical Fiction
    • Audible: 5,764 ratings, 4.8 stars
      • #17 in Military Thrillers
      • #42 in Military Historical Fiction
      • #63 in War & Military Fiction
  • Book-To-Movie Translation 
    • No movie has been made based directly on this book (although George Clooney does own the movie rights) but it could easily be argued that the movie ‘300’ starring Gerard Butler is exactly that. Gates of Fire was published in 1998 and Frank Miller’s graphic novel ‘300’ (which is for all intents and purposes identical to the movie) came out in 1999. Coincidence? Not likely.

Bio of Steven Pressfield

  • Steven Pressfield (born September 1, 1943 – he’s 79) is an American author of historical fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays.
  • Pressfield was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943, while his father was stationed there, in the Navy.
  • Pressfield graduated from Duke University in 1965. In 1966, he joined the Marine Corps.
  • Pressfield was an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital, fruit-picker in Washington state, and screenwriter. His struggles to make a living as an author, including the period when he was homeless and living out of the back of his car, are detailed in his 2002 book The War of Art.
  • Pressfield’s first book, The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was loosely based on the Bhagavad Gita, was published in 1995, and was made into a 2000 film of the same name directed by Robert Redford and starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Matt Damon.
  • His second novel, Gates of Fire (1998), is about the Spartans and the battle at Thermopylae. It is taught in the U.S. Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, and the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.
  • Pressfield has written ten novels, mostly military thrillers set in various time periods ranging from ancient Greece all the way to sci-fi future. He has also written nine non-fiction novels, including the best-selling book “The War of Art” that teaches artists how to become successful.
  • Prior to publishing his first original works of fiction, Pressfield wrote several Hollywood screenplays including 1986’s King Kong Lives, 1988’s Above the Law starring Steven Seagal, 1992’s Freejack, a fun B-movie sci-fi starring Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, and Anthony Hopkins, and 1993’s Army of One starring Dolph Lundgren

Breakdown of Themes

  • Cities, Identity, and Belonging
    • In the ancient Greek context of Gates of Fire, a city was not just a geographic home, but the environment in which people forged relationships, learned their culture, and formed their sense of identity. To lose a city was really to lose one’s self. This is what befalls the main character, Xeo
  • Faith and Divine Intervention
    • While it’s hardly surprising that gods and divine activity are a significant theme in Gates of Fire, Pressfield’s treatment of the human/divine relationship is far from simplistic. The gods are interested in human lives—even seemingly insignificant human lives—yet their intentions for those lives are not always clear from a human perspective. Through a range of personal and collective encounters between Greeks and their gods, Pressfield suggests that religious faith is a complex matter.
  • Warfare and Brotherhood
    • After Xeo’s hometown is destroyed by the Argives, he longs to join the Spartans because they are the only warriors who can defeat the Argives. “The Spartans became for [him] the equivalent of avenging gods. [He] couldn’t learn enough about these warriors who had so devastatingly defeated the murderers” of his family. In Xeo’s journeys with the Spartans, he encounters different views of what being a warrior and engaging in battle entail.
  • Fear, Courage, and Love
    • Throughout Gates of Fire, fear is pervasive, from the destruction of Xeo’s city to the hovering threat of the Persian invasion to the horrors of Thermopylae. Dienekes, seasoned mentor to the young Alexandros and the master whom Xeo serves as squire, is preoccupied with the study of fear and how it may be overcome. Through Dienekes’ exploration of the question of fear at pivotal moments in the story, Pressfield argues that fear can overcome everything except for love. 
  • Kingship, Loyalty, and Freedom
    • Though Pressfield is not heavy-handed in his portrayal of Greece as the traditional birthplace of democracy, he does portray King Leonidas and the Spartans as fledgling freedom-fighters, in contrast to the enslaving Xerxes and the masses of soldiers Xerxes compels to dominate Asia and Europe on his behalf. More than a political or historical point, Pressfield uses the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes to make a point about the nature of leadership itself.
  • Female Strength and Influence
    • Though Gates of Fire is very much dominated by male characters, women play a surprisingly prominent role throughout. Speaking of what prompted the monumental battle at Thermopylae, Xeo readily acknowledges that “In the end it was their women who galvanized the Spartans into action.” Though female characters are largely viewed through the eyes of male characters in the novel, Pressfield argues that women were the major inspiration for Spartan actions and character in war and at home.

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