Friday, June 7, 2024

Book Review: Seven Against Thebes by Stephen Dando-Collins

Stephen Dando-Collins’ Seven Against Thebes brings the original and once ubiquitously famous story to new audiences and readers

Seven Heroes, coming together to face a tyrant and his forces. You think you’ve heard this story before, or watched it.  Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven. And many variants.  But most of those stories (with one major exception, which I will discuss later) have the Seven coming together in defense, defending a group of innocents against an incoming force.  But the original story of seven heroes coming together is a somewhat different story. A story of a king wrongly deposed by his brother, and managing to gather a force of champions and soldiers to assault the city he once called home and to gain his birthright back. A city that in modern day is not as famous as Athens or Sparta, but was, once, their equal...

This is Stephen Dando-Collins’ story in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES: The Quest of the Original Magnificent Seven.

Once upon a time, 2500 years ago, the story of Polynices and his fellow Champions was one of the core stories of Greek History and Myth.  The Iliad and Odyssey you, reader, probably already know. And you know that even beyond those two texts themselves, the stories and myths of the Iliad and Odyssey had been adapted in plays, stories, and other works in Ancient Greece and Rome, and of course, all the way up to today. 

The story of the Seven Against Thebes was, for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the co-equal of the Iliad and Odyssey, once inspired numerous plays and other works based on the events. The Theban Cycle was once as big a deal as anything by Homer. But while the Iliad and Odyssey have proved immortal, the story of the war against Thebes lost its luster and cultural consciousness except for it’s origin point, and the general idea of a band of heroes fighting together (which Kurosawa and Sturges would bring, and flip from offense to defense).  Dando-Collins’ goal here is to bring the original story back to light, for new readers and present a story whose original is perhaps unjustly obscure in a new and modern light.

The author takes a strictly historical fictional tack in the novel right from the beginning of the story. While a lot of the plays and fiction written around these events in the time of the Greeks and Romans had the action replete with Gods and Monsters and the like, Dando-Collins takes a tack that the characters certainly believed in the Gods and act (often very strongly) on their religious beliefs, Zeus, Athena, Hera and the rest of their family do not appear on stage at all.  

So where does the story of Seven Against Thebes begin, in Dando-Collins’ retelling? Well, as I mentioned before, this is the part of the story that you almost certainly know.  Who has not heard of the man who, unknowingly, slew his father and married his mother?  Yes, the start of the story of the war against Thebes begins with none other than Oedipus.  Just why Oedipus did these things are presented in a Historical fictional point of view. While in the original sources, Oedipus was cursed by the Gods to do all this, it is in the end a series of tragic circumstances, and it all begins with a chance encounter on the road. Oedipus, who has been raised far away from his birth home as a foundling, gets into a deadly encounter with his father (not that he had a clue who it was) and proceeds from there to Thebes, the populace unknowing that he killed the King of the city. But they do know he is a big damn hero and so they marry him to the widowed Queen Jocasta, who is indeed his mother, their blood relationship unknown to either at the time.1

I can hear the record scratch. Big Damn Hero? Hero of what? Well, it turns out you may not have realized it, but Oedipus did defeat a monster, or so he claimed was a monster, in a riddling contest.  A monster called the Sphinx. And yes, the classic riddle whose answer is “A Man”.  Again, given the historical fictional perspective, Dando-Collins speculates that the Sphinx was just a woman who was a dangerous robber, nothing more, not that anyone knew that. Defeating the Sphinx is certainly more Heroic than a single female bandit, right?  (Later on, during the actual war, Dando-Collins has a couple of soldiers argue whether the Sphinx was real or was, in fact, just a bandit)

So, Oedipus and Jocasta ruled Thebes for a time, until drought and famine had them seek answers from the Oracle of Delphi as to why and how to solve it.  The results of that led to the two finding out the long buried truth about themselves and what had happened. Oedipus blinds himself and flees Thebes. 1 This leaves Oedipus and Jocasta’s two sons, Polynices and Etoceles. They decide that they should share the throne, ruling in alternate years. In a move that everyone with the sense of a dazed dormouse should have seen coming, the moment Etoceles takes the seat, he banishes his brother. 

And so the Seven Against Thebes gets its defining motivation. Polynices winds up at the court of King Adrastus in the city of Argos.  Along with another royal exile from a different city, Tydeus, he cools his heels for a while, but is always dreaming of the chance to go and wrest control of the city from his no-good brother.  Finally, a plan is hatched by Polynices and Tydeus to get their thrones back, by finding and gathering a group of companions, going together to liberate Thebes, and then go on to liberate Calydon on behalf of Tydeus. (And Adrastus, who would get lots of prestige by having the two cities beholden to him for his help, sees this all as a good investment in money and manpower)

As you can see, Seven Samurai, the Magnificent Seven and its kin usually have our Heroes defending the weak, training the helpless and playing defense for an incoming force, but the original source text is all about an assault on Thebes. L.R. Lam and Elizabeth’s May SEVEN DEVILS, though, does take inspiration from the original source text, having their heroes go on the offense against an oppressive Empire. And the former Heir to the Empire is one of the Seven, continuing the theme of having someone connected intimately to the ruler as part of the attacking party.  

But there is a note of heroism in fighting against a corrupt space Empire in Seven Devils, that Seven Against Thebes, as told by Dando-Collins, lacks. The reasons why the Seven get recruited and join Polynices’ quest to become King of Thebes are varied but are relatively mercenary--be it in terms of material wealth, or glory. This does have the knock on effect, I think, for a modern reader like me to sympathize with the Seven a little less than I would with a more modern tale. Polynices got a raw deal, to be sure, thanks to his brother, but this is not an altruistic campaign by any means for any of the others. 

When the actual marching and fighting occur, Dando-Collins, who has written on ancient armies and combats, really does shine. He looks at the logistics of marching and the terrain the army has to traverse, and the set pieces of the conflict. He shows a mix of individual combats a la the Iliad with army actions on a larger scale as the forces led by each of the Seven face off against the Seven gates of Thebes. He goes into loving detail on how Thebes was arranged and defended and the heroism on both sides of the conflict (and also side quests!) plays out. It was especially, here, that I could start to see what Classical Greeks and Romans saw in the story. War, reverses, combat, heroism, tragic deaths, pathos, and much more. It’s excitingly and engagingly written. 

Especially good is how the battle plays out. It’s a method much copied in film, because it works.  If you have a group of opponents on each side, you pair them off, so that you narrow the wide screen to a series of one-on-ones. The Seven do this, by each Gate in Thebes getting a defender to hold off the member of the Seven assaulting it.  It will surprise you not at all to find that, for example, thjat the gate Polynices assaults is defended by his brother Etoceles, himself. 

There is also another bit I got to thinking in reading this. If you remember your Iliad, there were funerary games held for Hector after Achilles slew him. Here, in the course of the battles and conflicts, we get a couple of high profile deaths, and funerary games to match.  The sheer joy and exuberance the participants have in the funerary game make it clear to me that this is how the Ancient Greek Olympics must have surely started--it started out of funerary games that eventually decided to become a regular thing, without needing a funeral to have an excuse to hold them. 

The other takeaway is when this book takes place in the timeline of Greek history/myth. Given that several of the children and immediate descendants of the Seven are present at Troy, this takes place in the generation before the Trojan War.  Theseus is contemporary to the Seven. One of the Seven is the son of Atalanta, the Huntress of the Calydonian Boar. If we mix myth and history for a moment, the Seven are the penultimate crop of heroes in Greek Mythology. After them, we get the Trojan War and the end of Mythic, Heroic Greece. Mythic Greece fades away into real history.2  Perhaps since they are the second closest to real history and also are less myth-touched than earlier generations of heroes like Heracles, Bellerophon, and the like, the Seven were and are more relatable as real people by readers and storytellers alike. 

If you are looking for a mythic, magic, here, this is not the rendition of the story that you want. Dando-Collins is relentlessly materialistic, attributing everything to men or to chance, and the Gods and magic play no part in his story. He fashions this mythic story into historical fiction of the first order, readable, immersive and a great look at larger than life characters and their epic and immense struggle.  This is source material and inspiration that more authors could mine for their own ideas. 

And if you want to learn more about Thebes, the city that was neither Athens nor Sparta but just as important, back in the day, let me commend to you Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, by Paul Cartledge. He does briefly touch on the Theban cycle events before going on to written history of the city.



  • Epic storytelling grounded in the real.
  • A real spotlight on a story whose details have faded from public consciousness

1. This is too big a digression to avoid putting elsewhere than a footnote, so here goes. The Oedipal complex has nothing to do really with Oedipus. He had no idea he killed his father, and married his mother. And as I said in the main text, once he and she find out the truth, it is with horror, revulsion and repulsion that this truth comes out, not any sort of secret desire like in Freud. Oedipus’ story is of tragedy of circumstance, not any sort of lusting after one’s parent. 

2. And yes I am sort of thinking of Niven’s The Magic Goes Away, here. 

Dando-Collins, Stephen, SEVEN AGAINST THEBES: The Quest of the Original Magnificent Seven. (Turner, 2023)

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.