The Fox

Written by M. N. J. Butler
Review by Lynn Guest

When Agis, King of Sparta, dies, his heir Leotychides, rumoured to be illegitimate, is replaced by his uncle. No longer considered royal, Leotychides is sent to a “flock” for boys aged 7 to 18 to be trained in Spartan military tradition. Warriors at 20, he and his friends from the flock defend Sparta from Athens and Thebes, but when Leotychides determines to return the declining city-state to its ancient standards, he and the flock must scheme against his now corrupt uncle.

First published in 1995, The Fox is a superb novel. Through Leotychides’ narrative, the reader understands the Spartan ideals of frugality, endurance and obedience that produced this disciplined and educated population who exult in death in battle, not just as a duty, but as man’s highest honour. Unlike in effete Athens, Spartan women live productive lives, mixing freely and competing with the men in the games. In a chilling scene, the names of the dead warriors are proclaimed as the smiling widows accept their friends’ congratulations.

Butler has so absorbed Spartan life, landscape and attitudes that his passion carried this reader through what is an elegantly written, very long, often confusing and slow novel with 200 characters. The very necessary glossary of names and terms is 26 pages long. Commitment by the reader pays. As the story gains pace, the book becomes unputdownable as Leotychides and his flock fight for old Sparta to the bitter end. A difficult but gripping read. Highly recommended.