Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A Review of "A Man at Arms," by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield’s newest novel, A Man at Arms, opens on a roadside in Judea in the year 55 AD, some two decades after the crucifixion of a Hebrew prophet whose followers continue to prove troublesome for the Roman Empire. 

A caravan of merchants and other travelers pause at the foot of a grade, knowing from experience that the summit is a favorite spot for brigands, bandits, and thieves to lay in ambush. We’re introduced to the novel’s main characters. First, a local boy, David: “son of Eli, age fourteen, unlettered but of sturdy limb and abundant ambition.”

Among the pilgrims and peddlers milling about and fretting on how they might continue on the road to Damascus without being waylaid and robbed blind at the top of the hill, David takes note of a father with his young mute daughter in tow. David is “struck by the child’s apparition. Feral, dirty, with bare soles and hair so matted it seemed neither comb nor brush could be pulled through it, the girl seemed more a wild animal than a human being.”

David then spies “the most striking personage in the enclosure,” a solitary soldier with a tattoo on his forearm...


...indicating his service in the Roman Tenth Legion. His countenance and equipage suggest he’s fought on the battlefields of many lands.

The boy observes that “the man’s weaponry was of legionary provenance, but adapted in a way David had never seen.” A Roman lance, but cut down and modified for close-in fighting. At his side, a short Roman ‘gladius’ sword. He carried a “bow of extraordinary length, constructed of the Amazon science,” nestled in a wolfskin case with arrows of the type used by Syrian and Parthian horse archers. He wields a leather throwing sling of the type employed by shepherds. His cap was wool, like those favored by seamen. The man-at-arms speaks Latin, Greek, and Aramaic. Thus we are introduced to the mercenary Telamon of Arcadia, and the two youths with whom his path will cross.

In an opening action scene that begs to be on the big screen, Telamon reluctantly provides aid to the column of travelers, dropping marauders and freebooters with the deadly efficiency of a skilled combat veteran – yet not out of compassion for their plight, but for the purse of coin with which he expects to be paid.

Post-skirmish, Telamon is taken into custody by a late-arriving Roman patrol, the mercenary running afoul of his former comrades when, seeing the feral girl-child about to be assaulted by a brute legionnaire, Telamon’s

 “...face went black with fury.  With a single violent stride, the warrior broke from the circle of spearpoints and flung himself upon the legionary.” 

In the melee to save the child from violation, the girl and her father escape astride a stolen cavalry mount. Held responsible for their escape, Telamon is then pressed into service by the Romans. His directive, now with the boy David in tow as an apprentice, is to pursue and apprehend the child’s father, who Rome believes is carrying a message that could threaten the stability of the empire, before that message can be delivered to the seditious Christian underground based in Corinth, Greece.  

These events set in motion an epic tale that matches or surpasses Pressfield’s earlier works of historical fiction like Gates of Fire, The Afghan Campaign, or Last of the Amazons. A Man at Arms is Pressfield’s 20th book and his 11th novel, and reflects his talent in creating a sense of place and realism. With sometimes sparse language, his prose can evoke a frisson of fear and apprehension. When seeing a workshop full of Roman crucifixes, sized to fit man, woman, or child, Telamon gestures to the wooden crosses and queries the Roman garrison commander:

“Does it work?”

“For what?” the garrison commander replies.

“To hold the populace by terror?”

The Roman considered this. “Not really. But it breaks the tedium.”


The story moves at the speed of a racing chariot -- short chapters around six or seven pages in length keep the reader embedded deeply in the first century. Nearly every chapter ends with a hook that elicited a margin note from me, like: “DANG!” or “The clock is ticking!” Or just “Wow.” I have more than one friend who’s read an advance copy and claims to be afflicted with sleep deprivation from being unable to stop turning pages, late into the night.

Telamon is rendered as a three-dimensional character, but equally as interesting is the nine-year-old mute girl, who plays a critical role in this story. We know there is something special about her and that she has a deep inner strength, which she shows straight away from the opening sequence. After the initial bloody skirmish where Telamon has dispatched the band of thieving marauders, all the itinerants and merchants have run for safety or taken cover – except for this young girl, who “alone stood forward, barefoot on the summit track, her gaze fixed upon the man-at-arms.”

Later when she is denied the chance to participate in a dangerous mission:

“The girl’s jaw worked hard. She had a fistful of stones and now hurled these one after another, hard, against the walls of the wadi. She did not throw like a girl.”

The relationship between Telamon and the child evolves. The novel’s plotline of “a man with a savvy young girl in his charge, embarking on a dangerous journey” may have readers hearkening back to this theme appearing previously between characters like Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in True Grit, or between Moses Pray and Addie Loggins in Paper Moon.

Pressfield has written that he never consciously intended to create Telamon. The Arcadian arrived on the page unbidden as a mercenary and assassin in Pressfield’s 2000 novel, Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, set in Greece around 430 BC.

Telamon appeared again 100 years later (the man yet unaged) as mentor to a young king and later a general in Pressfield's 2004 novel, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great. It’s worth noting that at the end of that novel, Telamon took leave of Alexander’s service to follow a line of pilgrims into India to become, as we are meant to understand, a monk. 

The mercenary even appears briefly in Pressfield’s 2011 near-future thriller set in 2030, The Profession, where a former Marine captain refers to “my old enlisted mentor, Master Sergeant Vaughn Telamon of Arcadia, Mississippi.”

Now in A Man at Arms, Telamon commands center stage – or at least shares it with a nine-year-old mute girl who, on some levels, is his equal. The mercenary Telamon has his arc in this story, much like the smuggler Han Solo in the Star Wars saga: out to get paid and concerned only for himself, until he finds something greater to care about. Telamon is even chastised for his selfishness by his former Legion commander, Marcus Severus Pertinax: 

“What is that passage from your credo, Telamon? ‘Only fools fight for a flag or a cause’? Yes, that’s it.” 

Yet in A Man at Arms, Telamon changes. He finds something greater to fight for. 

In the run-up to the launch of A Man at Arms, Pressfield released a video series entitled “The Warrior Archetype." In these twice-weekly videos, Pressfield led readers on an exploration of how the “warrior ethos” applies not only to external wars and warriors, but to our own inner battles and struggles. The series led us to Telamon.

The Warrior Archetype also led to something more universal: to an investigation of how we, by necessity, evolve from archetype to archetype: son/daughter, wanderer, warrior. Then to lover, husband/wife, king/queen, sage, and finally, if we’re lucky, to mystic.

Steven Pressfield has mused whether Telamon the Arcadian is something of his own “alter ego.” As Telamon has evolved over the past two decades – from assassin to mentor to general to monk – and then to what he becomes in this novel, Pressfield’s books have reflected a deepening of insight over time, and a deep regard and respect for all religions as ways we try to understand our place in the cosmos.

His first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was based on a story from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita (the warrior Arjuna appearing as WWI veteran “Rannulph Junuh,” and the deity Bhagavan as “Bagger Vance”). His historical narrative The Lion’s Gate: Behind the Lines of the Six Day War and his biographical An American Jew: A Writer Confronts His Own Exile and Identity were tied to his exploration of his own Judaism. People familiar with the Christian Bible will recognize in A Man at Arms that the dangerous message (which is the MacGuffin in this novel) is none other than "Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians.”

This work of historical fiction is a strong and page-turning addition to Pressfield’s body of work. My favorite Pressfield novel is usually the one I just read. A Man at Arms does not break that streak.

The first five chapters are available for free download at AManAtArms.com

The book is available for preorder on Amazon and launches 2 March 2021.

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