“It may seem excessive”, writes Tim Rood, “to devote a whole book to two words — especially when they are both the same”. But there is nothing excessive about this project, which is consistently amusing, well-written, and full of nicely calibrated insights. Rood, whose previous work on the narratology of Thucydides gave little sign that this would be his second project, traces the impact on the modern imagination of the most famous phrase in Xenophon. The moment in the Anabasis when the march of the 10, 000 reached the top of Mount Theches after so many adventures and finally saw the glint of waves and shouted, “thalatta, thalatta”, has had a quite remarkable afterlife. It is remarkable both for its scope — from the prose of explorers to the poetry of the Romantics, from the grandest of cultural icons to the fragments and fantasies of modernism — and also for the fact that it appears to have been of no particular interest to antiquity, the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. There are two questions that motivate this work, both of which are fascinating. How did this phrase come to have such an impact on the imagination? And why did this happen in modernity?
The book has two main temporal frames, with a sting in the tail. It looks first at the long 19th century, where Xenophon became a classic schoolboy text (and I use the word “school boy‘ advisedly), a source of inspiration for Victorian heroics, boredom in the classroom, and part of the furniture of a gentleman’s mind. Second, Rood looks at the 20th-century fragmentation and ironization of the phrase — where James Joyce is, as ever, the icon of modernist thought. The book opens with stately plump Buck Mulligan looking out across the sea at the beginning of Ulysses :
“God”, he said quietly, “isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great, sweet mother? The snot-green sea. The scrotum-tightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah Daedalus, the Greek. I must teach you. You should read them in the original. Thalatta! thalatta! She is our great, sweet mother. Come and look.”
Come and look, indeed. The book grows out of this paragraph like the spread of seaweed (the metaphors are catching). It looks back to Victorian education, which stands behind this paragraph. (“I must teach you. You must read them in the original”), and it looks forward to the heirs of Joyce’s punning and joking and worrying about the power of the old images. Rood also traces Joyce’s own wonderful games with the phrase — “the lassie, the lassie” is my favourite. As Joyce turns Swinburne into Algy (and that pun is also on the money), so “thalassa, thalassa” metamorphoses through genres and forms — shifting and shimmering like, well, waves.
The book has nine chapters. The first is a swift introduction to Xenophon’s own account of the march of the 10, 000. By the end of the book, when we reach the sting in the tail, it will have become clear exactly how and why this does only just enough to get the project started. The afterlife begins, however, with Victorian adventurers and twentieth-century soldiers who seem to have experienced a string of events that prompted the citation or memory of Xenophon’s phrase. For those of us who like Victorian adventurers (and who doesn’t at least love to hate them?), it is a pleasure to see a raft of new stories stitched together through this simple and not quite arbitrary connection. The necessary background to these adventurers is their Victorian education which is explored well in chapter 3 — both praise and scorn of Xenophon resound from the days when Classics took up 80% of the curriculum, with some specially tetchy and amusing words on Xenophon’s apparent obsession with the parasang. Chapter 4, named from a Byron tag, “image of eternity”, takes Heine’s North Sea Cycle as its proof-text. (It begins, “Thalatta! Thalatta! Greetings to you, o eternal sea”.) It turns out that there are all too many 19th-century poems called “Thalatta, thalatta” or which quote the phrase. This is one portion of the book which drifts into lists, the besotting Charybdis of reception studies. The sea is an all too easy image of profundity — the deeps — and Xenophon’s tag is caught up in this Victorian yearning. The narrative becomes more political in chapter 5, “The Sea is English”, which makes the unsurprising point that the way in which England defined itself as an island race, a necessarily maritime power, is a crucial frame to the multiform appropriations of Xenophon. The discussion of cultural identity here is rather thin, with too little analysis of the importance of Englishness in this imperialism — but the basic point is sound enough. Chapter 6 takes the artist and writer Benjamin Haydon, and weaves a nice story around his huge and bizarre canvas of Xenophon’s men reaching the summit. After the hefty cast list of the first chapters, it is good to get a chapter focused on a single figure. Haydon — self-obsessed, genius and failure, ludicrous and moving — is a fascinating character in himself, as well as a fine entrance into this high Romantic period. Travellers tracing Xenophon’s steps make up chapter 7, before Joyce and modernity conclude the march.
The scope of the book will be clear from that bare summary. What is more impressive is the largely elegant and carefully controlled analysis of particular stories, which takes this book well beyond the collection of interesting material. Rood is a good reader, who never allows himself to dwell obsessively on his subjects (though this could easily have become an obsessive’s book), and who repeatedly offers insightful glimpses in a smooth running narrative. There will be no reader, I confidently predict, who won’t be taken aback at the sheer variety of Xenophon’s heritage — Xenophon’s! — and who won’t be delighted by the highways and byways of such a journey.
But the most intellectually satisfying and surprising chapter of the book is the last. Here Rood does two things. First, he deconstructs his own argument of straight Victorians and twisty modernists to show how the Victorians were also messy and sophisticated in ideological and literary terms, and how the modernists in turn cannot escape the lure of the grandeur of the past. Second, he shows how the famous scene in Xenophon is itself not the climax or the end of the story. The Anabasis has three more books to go, in which Xenophon’s ragged army becomes more ragged, fighting with each other and with Greeks, causing trouble and dissension around themselves. Rood brilliantly catches out all those who hanker for the “thalatta, thalatta” moment. He shows that all such readers — and I suspect that most readers will fall into this camp at some level — are ideologically committed to a nave teleological adventure story. This, he argues convincingly, requires a blinkered misreading of the subtle and divisive Xenophon, whose own text is much darker and much cleverer. This is a very good reading of Xenophon, apart from all else. He also inevitably points out how his own first chapter pandered to such flaws. The book leads you down the mountain path to this sting. This is a fine chapter, which is itself a bold, clever and self-reflexive narratological surprise.
The intelligence and theoretical sophistication of this chapter makes one wish there had been more of the same in the early chapters. Rood offers little here by way of explicit discussion of how his work contributes to reception studies, one of the cutting edges of contemporary classics, or to the history of classical scholarship, another particularly flourishing concern at the moment. Rood would have a lot to offer here, I suspect, but it needs to be argued. Similarly, he makes very little attempt to bring together the different areas that he discusses — education and adventure, travellers and why the sea is English — into a coherent overview. The book is rather too often happy to stay in the world of glittering fragments.
This is a book with many pleasing and some genuinely sharp observations. The reversal of the final chapter demonstrates a really engaged methodological awareness that also points out how easy it is for a book with so many fine stories to avoid the bigger pictures and the harder arguments. The last chapter pulls the book towards making a very serious general contribution to current thinking on classics, which the previous eight chapters have downplayed. There is perhaps something of an opportunity missed to bring together the argumentative flair of the last chapter and the reading skills of the earlier analyses. None the less, the heritage of classics and the history of classical learning are hot topics in contemporary scholarship, and The Sea! The Sea! proves to be a book full of surprises, pleasures and cleverness, which makes a real contribution to both these areas.