The Firebrand

The Firebrand

"The Firebrand" by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1986)

Kassandra, the tortured prophetess daughter of Priam, receives little page-time in Homer’s Iliad, but in The Firebrand, a 1986 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kassandra is placed center stage in the saga of Troy. Although no longer raving, Bradley’s Kassandra is still cursed, but not by the god Apollo. Her status as a woman is all that ruins her credibility. Bradley’s heroine is no pampered princess either. At heart she is a fighter, partially reared by a wild band of warrior women known as the Amazons. As the destruction of Ilium approaches, Kassandra foresees this catastrophe and does all in her power to prevent it—but who will listen to a woman?

The author Marion Zimmer Bradley has covered similar ground before. In 1982 she published The Mists of Avalon, a re-telling of the Arthurian legend from the point of view of Arthur’s antagonist, Morgaine le Fay. Her feminist themes and inspired reworking of the legend transformed Morgaine into a sympathetic and compelling character, making the novel a classic of the genre. With The Firebrand, Bradley seems to be rehashing old themes. Even though Troy and the city-states of Greece are firmly male-dominated, many of the characters remember a time when it was not so. Powerful queens once ruled the lands, and smiling over them all was the Earth Mother, their almighty goddess. Slowly these queens lost power to their male consorts, who overthrew and subjugated their females. Along with their rule, these kings brought their dominant gods and drove the worship of the Earth Mother (and her alter-ego, the Snake Mother) underground. As a girl, Kassandra is told the story of Apollo slaying the mighty Python, the representation of the Snake Mother cult. Kassandra can barely believe this actually happened. If the Goddess is mother of all, how can she be killed?

As she did previously with Mists, Bradley uses the same events, while placing new motives behind

them. The war at Troy is played out as it was with Homer. Helen is abducted by Paris. This disaster is foreseen by Kassandra. Paris is her twin, and she has a psychic link to her brother, even when he was living in exile. (The title of the novel is a reference to the legend that Hecuba would give birth to a firebrand, which would destroy all of Ilium.) Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Akhilles soon follow with an army, and the war for Troy is begun. As these happenings spin out of control, Kassandra rediscovers the ancient worship of the Snake Mother and takes up residence in the Temple of Apollo, the god who has replaced her goddess. There she is assaulted by Khryse, a priest disguised as Lord Apollo himself. The priestess sees through his trick and fights him off. Khryse, angry and rejected, spreads the rumor throughout the city that Kassandra is cursed for refusing the love of Apollo.

All of these happenings are filtered through the minds of three main women. Kassandra, of course, abhors the war and frequently tries to bring it to an end, but her words are rarely heeded. Andromache, Kassandra’s cousin and Hector’s wife, is a more passive force, but does fear for the life of her husband and her young son. Helen, who at times appears ethereal and at others downtrodden and earthy, is given human dimension. Like the rest, she is a victim of the world of men.

Bradley goes to great lengths to strip away much of the fantastical elements of The Iliad. To Homer, the Amazons (fierce warrior women) and the Kentaurs (half-horse, half-man creatures) were superhuman, but to Bradley they are bands of nomads, who have larger-than-life tales attached to them. Rather than gods and goddesses battling on the field, Bradley shows the immortals only when they make appearances through the human characters. At times warriors and women invoke the aid of their deity and take on the qualities of their patron. Helen summons the glamour of Aphrodite, Hector channels the furor of the war god, and Khryse, the corrupt prophet of Apollo, speaks with the voice of that god himself. Because of this change, the gods still exist, but focus is placed squarely on the humans and their part in the war.

While Bradley allows the women of Troy to shine, the men of The Firebrand receive mostly unattractive qualities. Priam, a devoted father in The Iliad, is here cruel and un-wavering. He cares little for his prophesying daughter and frequently offers her violence if she fails to hold her tongue. Hector is less of a valiant hero and more of a blood-thirsty war-monger (although he cannot hold a candle to Bradley’s presentation of the inhuman Akhilles). Paris, who should be Kassandra’s dear twin brother, shows her the most scorn, constantly deriding her for her gloomy prophecies. Most of the other men in the tale (Agamemnon, Odysseus, Menelaus, Khryse) are cardboard cut-outs meant, some would argue, to further Bradley’s feminist agenda. Bradley seems to think that almost any man could be a rapist, given the right conditions. Virtually the only male with any redeeming qualities is Aeneas, who becomes Kassandra’s lover. He respects Kassandra’s independence and believes in her prophecies, but he lacks depth and believability.

Ultimately, it is Kassandra herself (donning the mask of Apollo) who puts an end to Akhilles’ bloodthirsty reign of terror. Her arrow finds its mark in his unprotected heel. Rather than allowing a legend of the Styx to bring down the great hero, Bradley gives us a much simpler solution: a poison-tipped Amazon arrow. Feminism has seemingly triumphed over male chauvinism—for a time. The Fall of Troy comes and goes. Kassandra suffers her horrifying fate as the concubine of Agamemnon but is freed at last by Klytemnestra, her master’s wife and murderer. She makes her way back Asia Minor, where in the desert, she hopes to recreate a kingdom of old—one ruled by a powerful queen, as it should be.

All in all, The Firebrand fails to achieve what Bradley had done previously with The Mists of Avalon. The tale of Troy is told from a female perspective, but the women of Ilium do little to alter the course of events. Men, faults and all, drive the action and force the story forward. What the reader is left with is a one-sided story. Once you realize and accept the fact that the Trojan women are oppressed by one-dimensional men, the tale has nowhere else to go. And despite their strength, the feminine forces can only sit by and muse over what the world would be like if women were in control of the world once again.

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