The Praise Singer by Mary Renault [A Review]

The Praise Singer is Mary Renault’s telling of the life story of the ancient Greek poet Simonides. Living at a time of Persian expansion, Greek Tyrants and the spread of writing, Renault shows Simonides navigating this world informed with her trademark deep knowledge of ancient Greece.

Cover image of The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

At his home on Sicily, Simonides of Ceos has time to reflect on his life and travels. At 83 years old, he has outlived many of his contemporaries and has seen great change in his world.

Originally from Iulis [Ioulis] on the island of Kea, as a child Simonides was often left to watch over the sheep of the family farm while his father and preferred older brother tended to more important things. The young Simonides had an active imagination, day-dreaming of Argonauts, Herakles and Achilles and his love of singing. But her dares not tell his strict domineering father. Born with a birthmark over his face, Simonides is easily dismissed and overlooked for his ugliness, especially in comparison to his strong, handsome, almost perfect older brother. When he is introduced to a young girl, expected to be his future wife, and she is horrified at the prospect of having to marry someone so ugly, Simonides feels he can already see his future laid out to the end of his life.

Till now I had been angry only with the present; at being reminded I was ugly, though I was used to that; much more at having the song put out of my mind, for nearly all had gone. But now I seemed to feel my fate close in on me. This island, twenty miles by ten, was to be my prison; here I would plod the circle of sour Hesiod’s seasons, works and days, works and days, tied to a fool and to her fools of kindred; tasting the food of the god once in five years, maybe, when some bard might chance to call at the harbour, held up by rough winds or the need to sing for his passage-fee. Like Homer’s orphan child, I would get the sip that wets the mouth and leaves the belly empty. I looked at Attica, and thought of her kings and heroes, of whom I had sung in solitude.

This introduction to the girl came at a local wedding, the highlight of which for Simonides, was watching the hired bard perform.

And now came the bard, in his festal robe, its border embroidered in Miletos, his seven-stringed kithara in his hand. He walked to the singing place, and drew his plectrum across his strings.

Happy groom, the favoured of Aphrodite,

Now at last you have her, your matchless maiden,

Girdled with violets.

The garland began to turn, like windblown petals.

[…] I was amazed he could sing so well. I knew nothing of training, except that it was given to good-looking boys who were chosen for Apollo’s choir, and went to Delos, the holy island, for his birthday feast. All I had was a voice to which the sheep would answer; and perfect pitch, which I was half aware of, enough to recognise it in the bard. I knew too that his inlaid kithara was a masterpiece.

Like most bards, he has a boy with him as a helper and understudy. Simonides observes them together with an envy bordering on hate. The next day, Simonides goes to the house of the father of the bride and asks to speak to the bard. When alone with him, Simonides begs the bard, Kleobis, to take him as another boy helper, willing to accept the minimum in return, he only wants to be able to listen to the songs. Kleobis is sceptical and tests Simonides to see if he has any bad intentions towards the boy he already has. Impressed with Simonides’ own singing, Kleobis agrees to speak to Simonides’ father. Simonides protests that his father has no knowledge of his wishes, that he came to Kleobis to run away, but Kleobis will not be an accomplice to that.

Simonides returns home to a beating and is sent out to watch the sheep. When he returns at the end of the day, Kleobis has come and met his father and left. Simonides’ father is indeed furious – furious that his son has an aptitude for an honourable profession but has kept it a secret. Simonides’ explanation for his deception perhaps only hurts his father more. However, since the bard is willing and has a good reputation, Simonides’ father gives his consent for him to go with Kleobis.

Simonides knows a lot of hard work lies ahead, but he is used to it and more willing to do it for something he loves. The world is rapidly changing though. The power of the Persians to the east continues to increase as towns and cities fall to them. If the Greeks could unite they would form strong resistance, but there seems no chance of the Greeks putting aside their differences. Simonides and Kleobis are in Ephesos [Ephesus] when the city falls to the Persians and they join fleeing refugees for Samos.

Samos is ruled by the tyrant Polykrates but, though he has a fondness for the arts and Kleobis gets an opportunity to perform for him, Polykrates has his own favourites. Kleobis’ contacts are not able to find him more opportunities and his former patrons have all been ruined by the war. Simonides starts singing in taverns – anonymously and just for practice since it risks losing their reputation to ever perform in high places again – but soon they are reliant on the income from it. They desperately need their luck to change. Though Kleobis is always encouraging of Simonides and Simonides feels much love, loyalty and debt to him, the time will inevitably come when he has to forge his own path.

As the 83 year old Simonides narrates this tale, he looks around his home, finding relics among his things; mementos from a long life, lived through a turbulent period of history.

I shall leave my scrolls, like the potter’s cup and the sculptor’s marble, for what they’re worth. Marble can break; the cup is a crock thrown in the well; paper burns warm on a winter night. I have seen too much pass away. So when they come to me, as they do from King Kieron down, asking about the days before they were begotten. I tell them what deserves remembrance, even if it keeps me up when I crave for bed. The true songs are still in the minds of men.

The Praise Singer is the fifth novel by Mary Renault I have read. In all she wrote eight novels set in ancient Greece and I think, now that I have read five of them, you can consider them to consist of three sets. The three I have not yet read are her Alexandrian TrilogyFire from Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games. There are two on the legendary Theseus – The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. That leaves the three others – The Last of the Wine, The Mask of Apollo and The Praise Singer.

What unites these last three is that they are each set during an important and dramatic period of ancient Greek history – The Last of the Wine during the Peloponnesian War, The Mask of Apollo during the reigns of Dionysius the Elder and Dionysius the Younger of Syracuse and The Praise Singer during Persian expansion into Ionia, Greco-Persian wars and the rule of the Pisistratus tyrants in Athens. What unites them further is the emphasis on the craft and career of the main character – Greek theatre in the case of The Mask of Apollo and Greek poetry in The Praise Singer. This aspect is less true of the more general The Last of the Wine. The novels therefore exist on three levels – the life story, struggles and challenges of the main character from a young age; the larger context of revolution, war and life under tyrants; the smaller context of the skills and trends of their chosen craft.

I think, though, I did not enjoy The Praise Singer as much as the two other books I categorised with it. The novel is very much focused on Simonides; other characters do not have as strong a presence and do not have an interesting role compared to the other novels. The larger historical context is comparatively somewhat distant and removed. There is less tension as Simonides is less caught up in it or threatened by it. Perhaps by focusing on an historical person gave Renault less range to take the story wherever she wanted and wherever was most dramatic. That being said Renault style, common with her other novels, remained distinctive and strong throughout.

As I have said in my previous reviews of Renault’s novels, Renault is equally highly regarded for her storytelling as for her knowledge of history. In her Author’s Note at the end of The Praise Singer she shares some of the facts, interpretations and inferences that informed her story. She describes the strata of poets in ancient Greece from the common marketplace performer, those who had private means of support and no need for patronage (like Sappho) and those, like Simonides, who needed support from tyrants. She discusses the spread of writing and the transition to transcribing the work of poets instead of a purely oral tradition, a transition which occurred during Simonides’ lifetime.

She shares what little we know of the historical Simonides – perhaps more than we would have if it were not for the fact that his nephew, Bacchylides, also became a famous poet. From this she discusses the liberties she took in crafting her story. For example, there is no record of Simonides’ father being so cruel, or of Simonides working in Ionia or Samos – she invented these to explain why Simonides did not return home and to fill gaps in his biography.

Of the five Renault novels I have so far read, The King Must Die and The Mask of Apollo are the ones I enjoyed the most followed by The Last of the Wine. The Praise Singer is not quite in that company, but worth reading for anyone who loves historical fiction, particularly of the ancient world, and for anyone who is a fan of Renault and wants to experience her oeuvre.

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