The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is narrated by Aristotle and tells the story of his time spent teaching Alexander soon to be “The Great.” In the process we also get some flashbacks of Aristotle’s boyhood and how he came to be the great philosopher.
As with all historical fiction one must remember this is, well, fiction, and not history or biography. Curious about Aristotle’s real life, I checked out his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a fantastic and reliable resource by the way). In the novel liberties are taken with Aristotle’s timeline and just how close his relationship with Alexander was. According to the encyclopedia, Aristotle was 38 when he became the teacher of 13-year-old Alexander (my math on Aristotle’s age) and taught him for only two or three years, though some scholars dispute this and say it was as long as eight years. But we do know that by the time Alexander was 15 he was already going out on campaigns with his father, Philip II. The book takes what seems to be the eight-year number approach.
In the book Aristotle sees himself as providing a balance to the martial education Philip is providing Alexander and insists that to be a good ruler, Alexander must find the “golden mean,” the balance between extremes. Aristotle is presented as a pacifist of a sort, but some sources I read in addition to the Stanford article, indicate that Aristotle encouraged Alexander to conquer Asia. Whatever the case, little concrete information is known about what Aristotle actually taught Alexander and what kind of relationship they had.
A very curious change was made to one real historical figure in the book, Alexander’s half brother, Arrhidaeus. In the book he is made to be severely mentally disabled and Alexander hates him. In the book Aristotle takes Arrhidaeus under his tutelage, treats him like a person, teaches him letters and music, how to ride a horse, essentially lifts him up from being an animal into being the mental equivalent of a young boy with the body of an adult. However, in reality, Arrhidaeus had only a mild mental disability and Alexander loved him dearly. On Alexander’s death, Arrhidaeus became Philip III of Macedon. Granted, he was more a figurehead than anything and neither his life nor his reign lasted long, but why the big change about this in the book? It really doesn’t serve any purpose to have written Arrhidaeus and Alexander’s relationship to him so very differently.
Ok, so like I said, The Golden Mean is a novel, fiction, it doesn’t have to adhere to reality. But even forgetting all of the historical transgressions, I didn’t much like the book. When I was still in the first third of the book a coworker asked me what I was reading lately and I mentioned The Golden Mean and what it was about. She commented that it sounded interesting. I replied that I had thought so too but that it was actually a boring book. If it weren’t for the fact that I read it for the Slaves discussion, I would not have finished it. It got marginally better by the end but I still didn’t enjoy it. Nothing happens in the book, which isn’t a bad thing, but if nothing is going to happen in a book it needs to have interesting characters. The characters should be interesting, I mean Aristotle and Alexander, but they are not. Nor is their relationship. Nor are there any secondary characters or relationships that are interesting.
Nonetheless, when I finished the book and read all the glowing blurbs on the back cover I feared I had missed something. I mean, it was a bestseller in Canada, published in six languages, was nominated for the Giller prize and won a few other prizes. Maybe the book was better than I thought? But after I did a little research on Aristotle and Alexander I began to trust my reaction a bit more. And then Rebecca didn’t give it many stars on Good Reads and suddenly I feel much better about my take on the book.
But it is my take. Lots of people in Canada liked it so not everyone who reads it will come away with the same experience I did. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone though.
I read this for the Slaves discussion. Discussion doesn’t start until September 30th but I decided to post early because Friday night is not a good night for sitting down and writing about a book. All are welcome to join in and/or follow the discussion that will happen on the Slaves’ blog and on the Slaves’ discussion board