Friday, February 11, 2011

Harry Turtledove's "Give Me Back My Legions"

Harry Turtledove is known primarily for his alternate history novels. In fact, he may be one of the most qualified writers in the world doing it: he holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. However, in Give Me Back My Legions(St. Martin's Griffin 2009), he eschews alternate history and plays it straight down the middle, writing a novel about Publius Quintilius Varus' defeat in Germany in 9 A.D. at the hands of the German chief Arminius. Arminius, known in Germany as Hermann, was a Roman citizen of the equestrian class, and an officer in Tiberius' auxiliary in the war against the Pannonians on the Balkan Peninsula. Because of his familiarity with the Roman Legions and the trust he engendered in Varus, Arminius was able to deceive Varus and trick him, destroying three legions in the Teutoburg Forest (some say Teutoburg Pass).

Turtledove's stylistic choices make Give Me Back My Legions an interesting example of historical fiction: he does not try to create a fictional milieu in which one feels he or she is inhabiting a historical period; instead, he ignores the anachronisms of style that are almost inevitable when writing historical fiction and embraces them. Examples of this type of approach can be found in the BBC production of I, Claudius, where legionaries speak in cockney accents, or in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, where the nobility dance to rock music. Ironically, through this blatant disregard of anachronism something new emerges that seems both fresh and exciting.

Although Teutoberg Forest has been listed as one of most significant battles in history and its conclusion resulted in a freezing of further expansion of the Roman Empire across the Rhine and Danube rivers, there is surprisingly little written material on it. Additionally, although Varus was quite visible in Roman history, primarily because of his role in what Josephus called the Varian Wars, the facts surrounding the battle are sketchy at best. It was not until the British soldier, Tony Clunn, an amateur historian, discovered the actual battleground in the 1980s that our understanding of what happened to the three Legions began to gel.

The source material includes the work of Velleius Paterculus, a retired military officer, in his Epitome of Rome, brief sketches in the work of Florus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, and three historical studies in English: Tony Clunn's The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield (Savas Beattie; New York 2005), Peter Wells'The Battle that Stopped Rome (W.W. Norton & Company: New York and London, 2003), and Adrian Murdoch's Rome's Greatest Defeat: Murder in the Teutoburg Forest (The History Press 2009). Of the three, I found Murdoch's the most informative because he traced Varus' life and placed the battle within a political context. However, his work would not have been possible without Clunn's.

Unlike Harry Sidebottom or Simon Scarrow, Turtledove does not create any new or fictional characters; he uses the real actors to analyze the facts. His artistry arrives in the answers he propounds: why did Arminius betray Varus; was Varus incompetent; how long did the battle last; why did Varus wait three years to attack; did Augustus use the battle to achieve political ends; what was the importance of wine. By asking these questions and many more like them in his narrative, based on the actual chronology, and actually providing plausible answers within that same narrative context, Turtledove delivers an entertaining novel.

Although it is quite entertaining, the novel lacks one of the four legs of historical fiction. Stephen Pressfield states in the preface to Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow that historical fiction involves a "four-part hat trick;" the fourth part is that it has to "mean" something. Telling a story or enumerating the facts is not enough to elevate the novel into the higher echelon of historical fiction. However, sometimes you just want a good, fast read on a subject that fascinates you; that is what Give me Back My Legions is to me.

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