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Alexander and The Tyger

Still on the subject of epigrams, the quotations from poetry that start all of my books. Today I'm talking about Stealing Fire. The poem that opens Stealing Fire is from William Blake's The Tyger, a deceptively simple poem that is often one of the first ones taught to schoolchildren. After all, it's about an animal, and all the kids know what a tiger is, right? I remember having it in sixth grade and thinking it wasn't entirely about an animal. Here's the full poem. I bolded the lines that open Stealing Fire.

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Stealing Fire is about Alexander, though Alexander is dead in the first scene. Stealing Fire is about the things Alexander wrought, about the ways he changed the world and changed the people he came in contact with, including Lydias, who thinks of himself as a very ordinary man who was transformed by Alexander's solitary magic.

Perhaps he was born in ordinary circumstances, but Lydias is not ordinary. He's extraordinarily focused and hardworking, loyal and capable. Lydias may not be a military genius -- indeed, he's not -- but he's a smart guy who spent fifteen years learning from the best and he didn't waste his time. Lydias was always clever and capable. He was when he was a slave. Alexander did not give that to him. But what he did give him was the chance to rise. Alexander's disturbance of order, his stirring up the world, gave Lydias opportunities to do things and to test himself and to learn things that he never would have had in the natural course of things. Thousands of men like Lydias have lived and died as slaves, never being more than a capable groom in Miletus. The reason Lydias becomes a general and the companion of kings is because he had a unique opportunity, one presented by this wind through the world.

So who is Alexander? Who is this wind through the world? Is this good or bad? This hurricane scours away old ills and deposes bad kings, frees slave boys like Lydias and liberates Egypt. And it costs thousands of lives. Palaces burn and cities are sacked, families divided by war.

What is the Tyger? Where did it come from? "Did He who made the lamb make thee?" What god signed off on this? Lydias asks Bagoas, "Who does Alexander serve?" That question remains unanswered at the end of the book. Even the encounter with Alexander's spirit in the tombs of the Apis Bulls doesn't fully answer the question, though it makes it clear that Alexander will be back. This hurricane through the world will come again and again, uncontrollable and devastating, for good or ill.

And Lydias has signed on for the ride. "On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire?" Lydias has seized the fire. He has sworn himself as a Companion beyond death. He has chosen to tie himself to this Great Story, and he will return to it again and again through the centuries. Stealing Fire is the story of how Lydias became a Companion, how this soul signed up for this, how Lydias made oaths that bind him for thousands of years. If Alexander is fire from heaven, this is the story of how Lydias stole a tiny piece of it. This is the story of a coal from the conflagration.

But as to what comes of it? For that we have to look forward two thousand years to a young adventuress named Elza.


Mar. 5th, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
Mmmmmm. Thank you.
Mar. 5th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!