Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules are the opening words of the most famous military song in English: the march known as ?The British Grenadiers.? The pairing of the greatest general of antiquity and a mythical hero is quite appropriate; for while Alexander the Great actually lived, he had passed into myth even before his death in 323 B.C. In his short life of little more than three decades, Alexander mastered the largest empire yet known to man and, as his deeds were remembered and retold, they took on the shape of stories like Hercules? labors. Within a century, an entire body of fantastical literature had been collected, now known as the Alexander Legend, and its influence was felt across three continents. Translated and reinterpreted, Alexander appears in everything from the Bible (Book of Daniel) to the Qu?ran (as Dhu?l-qarnain, the “Two-Horned One”) to the Persian national epic, the Shahnameh (as Sekandar). It is this generation and transmission of lore that Richard Stoneman surveys in Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend. His thematic book opens a brilliant window into the afterlife of ancient myth, ranging over classical, medieval, and Renaissance sources with passing references to Borges, Proust, and even Thomas Bernhard. Alexander may have failed in his dreams of conquering Rome and Carthage, but he achieved immortality nonetheless. Greek fishermen still know what to do when a two-tailed mermaid roils the sea crying out “Where is Alexander the Great?” Only shouting “He lives and reigns and keeps the world at peace” will stay the mermaid from plunging the ship to the bottom.
About the Author
Robert Messenger is the Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal.