Ferdia Lennon’s “Glorious Exploits” is a review that explores the use of classical tragedy in a Celtic setting. It examines how the author incorporates elements of ancient Greek and Roman tragedies into the story, creating a unique and exciting narrative. The review also delves into the themes and motifs present in the book, highlighting the clever and captivating storytelling.
Stories that highlight the influence of storytelling are often well-received. I believe this is because they elevate both the creator and the audience, giving a sense of bravery to the former and validating the leisure activity of the latter. Ferdia Lennon’s first book, Glorious Exploits, also focuses on the potency of stories and the comfort they provide on a spiritual and emotional level. However, it cleverly avoids becoming overly self-congratulatory.
In 412BC, the Peloponnesian war continues and the city of Syracuse, located in Sicily, has been greatly affected by a failed invasion from Athens. This has led to the city undergoing major changes, such as the creation of new trade routes and an increase in financial support for its declining infrastructure. The ports are bustling with activity, including wealthy merchants and enslaved individuals, all surrounded by the democratic ideals of the city. However, despite this prosperity, reminders of the recent violence can be seen throughout Syracuse. One particularly grim reminder is the limestone quarries on the city’s outskirts, where thousands of captured Athenians have been abandoned, chained and left to die in the scorching Mediterranean heat.
Lampo and Gelon are two aimless and jobless potters who have been friends since childhood. Their only common interest is their love for Homer. Their relationship is typical of a mismatched comedy duo. Lampo is carefree and uninterested in anything, spending his time planning thefts and flirting with attractive slaves at the tavern. On the other hand, Gelon is quiet and appreciates beauty, but is grieving over the loss of his son and estranged wife. They often go to the quarry together, where they share bread and cheese with the malnourished prisoners in exchange for bits of Euripides’ plays. Gelon believes Euripides to be the greatest of all Greek playwrights, far superior to Sophocles or Aeschylus. He even suggests staging their own production of Medea in the quarry, with the prisoners as their actors.
The story unfolds over a brief period of time, and the book moves along at a brisk pace with precise writing adorned with beautiful descriptions and occasional epic comparisons: the sun is compared to a “gluttonous star”, the skin on a worker’s fingers is likened to “curdled milk”, an actor’s hands move in the air “like strange flowers in a storm”. It is only fitting that the sea is described as “wine-dark”. During their initial trip to a costume shop, Lampo and Gelon spot “a small ginger cat…licking at the gold paint on one of the fake crowns, causing its tongue to sparkle”. Stunning.
Lennon’s most notable contribution is incorporating a contemporary Irish dialect into his classical backdrop. However, if you are comfortable with a Sicilian shopkeeper from BCE stating, “Time flies, that’s what it does” – and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be except for the most pedantic of historical enthusiasts? – you will eventually stop noticing after a few chapters. The mysterious benefactor of the friends, known as Tuireann from the Tin Islands (a variation of the ancient pan-Celtic thunder god “Taranis”), serves as a connecting element between the Hellenic and Gaelic storytelling traditions, which Lennon holds in equal regard.
The story is narrated solely from Lampo’s point of view. While he is a likable narrator, there are moments where his perspective seems out of place. I appreciated his disinterest as a militiaman (he mentions that killing can be a thrilling experience, albeit strange), but I found him and the overall novel less believable once the dark humor of the beginning chapters is replaced with sentimental sayings in the later ones. It’s difficult to say anything new about the unpredictable behavior of the classical gods, but statements such as “the world was once a mere idea in a god’s mind, and when a person gives up on themselves, that same god turns away” had little emotional or intellectual impact, similar to a trinket on a refrigerator.
The length of the novel also limits the exploration of its themes such as poverty, imprisonment, and exploitation. While Lampo and Gelon’s perception of their actions changes as they form closer bonds with the Athenians, Lennon’s admiration for their dramatic pursuits – art, storytelling, and show business – somewhat overlooks the ethical discomfort of their means. In my opinion, the novel frequently contradicted its own message that tragedies should teach us about the “dignity even in the worst that could happen under the sky”, seemingly unintentionally.
Although the sitcom style may struggle to support its premise, there are still many enjoyable aspects to the book. I was left wanting more, as I believe Lennon is capable of delivering it, but I am confident this lighthearted novel will gain him numerous followers.