The ancient Greeks not only laid the foundations for Western literature but also raised most of its forms to their greatest heights. "In poetry, they are all but supreme; no epic is to be mentioned with Homer; no odes to be set beside Pindar; of the four masters of the tragic stage, three are Greek," wrote Edith Hamilton. "Prose, always late in development, they had time only to touch upon, but they left masterpieces. History has yet to find a greater exponent than Thucydides; outside of the Bible, there is no poetical prose that can touch Plato."
Modern Greeks, however, are known more for their high spirits, bouzouki music and sun-washed beaches than their contributions to literature. Yet their literary achievement, since they won independence from the Turks almost 160 years ago, is significant. Greek scholar Constantine Trypanis was not showing unwarranted bias when he wrote that "in the last 100 years greater and more original poetry has been written in Greek than in the previous 14 centuries . . . (and) in the last 50 years it has achieved universal validity."
Modern Greece has also produced a number of distinguished prose writers, although their work has not been available widely enough in good translations to earn them the international reputation they deserve.
That is not the case with the preeminent figure in modern Greek literature--Nikos Kazantzakis, who died in 1957 at 74. His major works were published in English years ago and became so successful, especially after "Zorba" was made into a popular film in 1964, that they have fueled a demand for translations of everything he ever wrote short of his grocery lists.
"At the Palaces of Knossos," a vivid retelling of the legend of Theseus and the destruction of the Minoan empire, is one of the lesser works of Kazantzakis. Indeed it was written in the late 1930s as an adventure tale for an Athenian youth periodical. Yet it is a testament to Kazantzakis' powers that a work written casually for a young audience can make compelling reading for people of any age.
Like Homer, who begins "The Iliad" late into the siege of Troy, Kazantzakis knows how to restructure a well-known story for maximum dramatic effect. He does not tell us how Theseus came to Athens and found his father, or how the wife of King Minos fell in love with a bull and produced the Minotaur to whom the Athenians were forced to sacrifice seven girls and seven boys every year, or why Athens had to pay such a dreadful tribute.
Kazantzakis starts his story with Theseus wandering around the palace of Knossos searching for ways not only to destroy the Minotaur but also to bring down the whole Minoan empire and free Athens from bondage to it. His Theseus is not your usual mythological hero but a royal revolutionary, bent on creating a new world out of a flaccid civilization that has outlived its time.
All the characters of the legend, however, are here: the ingenious Daedalus who built the labyrinth for the Minotaur and devised wings to fly from Crete with his reckless son Icarus; Ariadne, the princess who fell in love with Theseus and helped him find a way out of the labyrinth; Minos, the old, proud king of the island empire, and his monstrous charge, the Minotaur. To make the story more appealing to the young people for whom he originally wrote it, Kazantzakis includes two teen-agers, loyal servants of Ariadne and children of a skilled blacksmith who holds the secret to making powerful new weapons out of iron.
No modern writer is as gifted as Kazantzakis in creating characters who are bigger than life yet very human, and everyone in this story manages to draw some sympathy from the reader, even the Minotaur: "Arms spread wide, its enormous mouth open in a ghastly toothy grin, the Minotaur was . . . holding out its arms as though to keep him from leaving, but as the king stared back at it with dread, he could see two giant tears spilling from the creature's eyes."
Kazantzakis has been fortunate in the translators who have taken on his works, especially Kimon Friar, Jonathan Griffin, and P. A. Bien. The translators of this book, Theodora and Themi Vasils, also serve him well. Previously they faithfully translated several smaller works of Kazantzakis and they demonstrate a confidence that comes with familiarity. Except for a few lapses into inappropriate colloquialisms ("I'm in a daze"), they convey the power and the cadence of Kazantzakis with skill.
"At the Palace of Knossos" is both a stirring tale for young people "full of adventure, full of knowledge," as Kavafis would say, and an allegory for adults on fear and power. "Let each of you feel in his heart that there is a Theseus in him, slaying the beast within that has been tyrannizing him," Kazantzakis' hero tells Athenians.
Whether young or old, those who read this book will not be disappointed.