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The Golden Mean: A Novel of Aristotle and Alexander the Great    by Annabel Lyon order for
Golden Mean
by Annabel Lyon
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Like King Arthur, Alexander the Great has been written about often, in both fiction and non-fiction narratives. I've read many of them, my favorite being Mary Renault's treatment of the world conqueror. In The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon takes an approach to Alexander's life that reminded me of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - she looks at the legendary ruler through the eyes of someone close to him, with his own claim to fame, renowned philosopher Aristotle.

It's 342 BC and Aristotle (a Macedonian doctor's son) has journeyed (along with his elegant young wife Pythias, his cousin's son and apprentice Callisthenes and their slaves) from Atarneus, 'snug to the flank of the Persian Empire' to Pella, capital of Macedon, a young kingdom which is 'in the ascendant, under five-wived Philip'. Aristotle delivers a message from Hermias of Atarneus and intends only to stay for a few days.

Aristotle encounters young Alexander immediately, sharing observations of nature with him. And Philip is a childhood friend. He has two sons, 'The one a champion, godling, genius, star', the elder, Arrhidaeus, a backward child in an adult body. Aristotle feels that Arrhidaeus 'could be more than he is' and works on developing his existing faculties rather than seeking a cure.

Actors are preparing to play the Bacchae and Aristotle befriends the Athenian director Carolus and shares his weakness with him - 'I cry easily, laugh easily, get angry easily. I get overwhelmed.' He suffers from black depressions. When the play is staged, young Alexander shows his character by a ruthless, highly effective action that extracts a strong and very real reaction from the players. Philip asks Aristotle to tutor Alexander.

Aristotle does so in order to be 'a force for the good', to help 'shape the future of a great empire.' He teaches Alexander and his companions 'Ethics, politics, and metaphysics'. Alexander plans ahead and is determined to never show weakness. Pythias finds him lonely and wants to mother him. Jealousy eventually interrupts Aristotle's role as tutor but not the friendship between philosopher and prince.

Aristotle becomes a father and Alexander goes to war and develops Soldier's heart, with resulting headaches and violence. Philip worries about his son and makes backup plans. Then Philip is assassinated and Alexander comes into his own. As he and Aristotle are about to part, Alexander tells him they are alike in that 'We go places no one has ever been.'

The Golden Mean: A Novel of Aristotle and Alexander the Great is a highly recommended read that will give you new insights into both legendary figures. Aristotle's musing at the end sums it all up brilliantly: 'Soon I'll be alone in a quiet room where, for the rest of my life, I can float farther and farther out into the world; while my student, charging off the end of every map, falls deeper and deeper into the well of himself.'

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