The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark

The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives.


The Court of Broken Knives is a novel about violence.

When I started writing the book, I didn’t have a plot or a world or a cast of characters in mind. What I had was a scene.

A desert.

A group of men.


I’ve always been fascinated by violence: How one might respond to the opportunity for violence. What doing violence might feel like.  And that’s what The Court of Broken Knives ultimately became about.

I was brought up reading the great myths and legends, the old stories of heroes. The Iliad. The Eddas. Beowulf. Gilgamesh. The Tain. I loved these stories. Read and reread them, immersed myself in them, told myself stories set in their worlds. But what I came back to, as I got older, was the realisation that for so many of these stories we are not reading about good versus evil. We are not reading high fantasy, the last desperate stand where evil is vanquished and the Dark Lord is overthrown. We are reading about violence for its own sake. The act of winning, of killing one’s opponent and glorying in one’s triumph, is the victory. The hero is ‘good’ because he wins.

And yes, ‘he’. These are acts of masculine violence. More women have perhaps fought in battle than we realise, yes, granted. But, historically, organised violence has been the domain of men. Armies and battle hosts have been male places. Places from which women have been excluded. And that in itself is worth thinking on.

Let’s look for a moment on the Iliad. The Iliad was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. It was composed perhaps three thousand years ago. It is the first and greatest masterpiece of European literature, the foundation stone of western culture. It is a book entirely and totally about war. A very large number of people die in the Iliad. Graphically, horribly, and without even the consolation of heaven awaiting them. The whole reason for the war is shown to be futile.

But war is also the whole basis of the Iliad’s society. The leader of the Trojans is called Hector. He’s spent ten years killing Greeks for the sake of a woman who ran off with his little brother. He’s seen most of his brothers die, and his wife’s entire family die, and he knows, deep down inside, that he’s going to die himself. In one of the most moving scenes in the poem, he says farewell to his wife and child before going out to battle, and he knows and we know and they know that he’s not going to come back from it. And this is what he says:

When [their child is grown and] comes home from battle wearing the bloody gear

Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war-

A joy to his mother’s heart.

(Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1990, book 6, lines 568-574)

Coming home from battle still bloody with his enemies’ innards. That’s the greatest joy a woman can want for her children. That’s what makes you absolutely the top chap.

The Iliad is not a celebration of war. But is not a rejection of war, either. It makes one terrible, horrifying, entirely obvious point:

Winning at war feels great. And that’s a strange and exhilarating experience to write about—particularly someone who has not ever fought.

Reading about war is enjoyable. Writing about war is immensely enjoyable. And I strongly suspect, from everything I’ve ever studied about history, that actually doing war is even more enjoyable than reading or writing or watching it. Warfare has been pretty much a constant of human history, and those who are good at it have generally occupied the top social and sexual desirability spot. Some war is morally justified.  Most war is not. We’ve always known that. Right back to the Iliad. And yet we do it. We have always done it. We probably always will.

We do it because winning at war feels great. I wanted my characters to have the same feelings as Hector: to understand simultaneously that war is bloody and horrible, but also glorious and exciting and fun.

I do not say this because I think war is a good thing. It is a terrible thing. A horrifying thing. A thing of utter shame and grief.

But I say it because it is a true thing, and a thing that I wanted people to remember in The Court of Broken Knives.


The Broken Knives: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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15 Comments on “The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark”

  1. “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”— Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg

  2. A point of history:

    Besides sneaking into the ranks of armies, women — in certain places and times — did fight and were trained to do so.  For instance, in Middle-Ages-to-Renaissance Europe, noblewomen were [often] trained to duel, and did fight duels on occasion.  However, there was a strict code governing who might duel whom.  Basically, a [proper] duel could only be fought between peers.  Kings could not duel lords (one king might challenge and duel another king, a real failure of diplomacy and summit preparation); lords could not duel commoners; men could not duel women; etc.  (How, you might ask, could a baron get away with caning a serf, or a husband get away with beating his wife?  These were not duels but exercises of authority; different rules.) 

    Women would not be trained in use of the heavy swords, the broadswords and two-handers and the like; but lighter swords and knives, sometimes custom made for the use of women (or of the particular woman) were used.  The film The Three Musketeers (1973/Lester) was fairly well researched in its weapon use.  The knife-as-comb that the Dunaway character draws to use against the Welch character would be one way a woman of the era might carry a weapon.  (As an aside, women [noble, that is] were also accustomed to organizing and commanding armies at need, managing sieges and the like; frequent exercises for noblewomen in the Crusader kingdoms, for instance.) 

    So it was sometimes the case that women were admitted — normatively — to the exercise of violence, individual and group alike.  Lois McMaster Bujold, for one, has an excellent grasp of this aspect of history. 

  3. In fact the oldest extant sword training manual (the i.33 or Walpurgis manual which focuses on sword and buckler) has a few pages in which a woman is being trained by the fencing master. A good indication that it was not uncommon for women to learn how to fight with these weapons.

  4. Why was a son “coming home from battle still bloody with his enemies’ innards” the greatest thing – because the alternative was the son lying dead on the battlefield with the blood of his innards on the enemy. In those terms, it’s a pretty clear choice.

  5. James Galloway, that’s using a kind of logic that was not in the ‘genes’ of the Iliad. Consider what Spartan mothers said to their sons – alledgedly*: Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (Come back with your shield, or on it**)

    *Yes, that’s long after the Trojan War(s)
    **Not a literary translation at all

  6. It is a book entirely and totally about war.

    The Iliad is about everything but War; that’s the entire point of all those glorious battle scenes – it’s entertainment while the actual point is hidden in the subtext (OP – what do you do for a living again?). It gets told around the fire, but the actual lessons are far more important. The Battle bits are the Space of the genre: if you’re not in a fight, watching a fight or erstwhile about to have a fight, it’s the same thing as being in space, watching space-ships in space or erstwhile about to be in space.

    It’s a literary device: given it was that or oiled men wrestling naked, you can see the appeal for non-naked male action occurring every so often.

    But, we’re a little confused:

    Book VI doesn’t have a line 568. These are the last lines of book VI:

    τὸν δ᾽ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ:
    ‘δαιμόνι᾽ οὐκ ἄν τίς τοι ἀνὴρ ὃς ἐναίσιμος εἴη
    ἔργον ἀτιμήσειε μάχης, ἐπεὶ ἄλκιμός ἐσσι:
    ἀλλὰ ἑκὼν μεθιεῖς τε καὶ οὐκ ἐθέλεις: τὸ δ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ
    ἄχνυται ἐν θυμῷ, ὅθ᾽ ὑπὲρ σέθεν αἴσχε᾽ ἀκούω
    πρὸς Τρώων, οἳ ἔχουσι πολὺν πόνον εἵνεκα σεῖο.
    ἀλλ᾽ ἴομεν: τὰ δ᾽ ὄπισθεν ἀρεσσόμεθ᾽, αἴ κέ ποθι Ζεὺς
    δώῃ ἐπουρανίοισι θεοῖς αἰειγενέτῃσι
    κρητῆρα στήσασθαι ἐλεύθερον ἐν μεγάροισιν
    ἐκ Τροίης ἐλάσαντας ἐϋκνήμιδας Ἀχαιούς.

    (Translation: it’s the bit where the Trojans are getting ready for battle and Hector and Alexander are rebuking Paris for, you know, totally being keen and prideful and rushing excitedly to battle when they’re all about to go and get slaugher(ed) and Hector is all like: Dude – this is totally all your fault, bro):

    Strange man, no one that is rightminded could make light of thy work in battle, for thou art valiant; but of thine own will art thou slack, and hast no care; and thereat my heart is grieved within me, whenso I hear regarding thee words of shame [525] from the lips of the Trojans, who because of thee have grievous toil. But let us go our way; these things we will make good hereafter, if so be Zeus shall grant us to set for the heavenly gods that are for ever a bowl of deliverance in our halls, when we have driven forth from the land of Troy the well-greaved Achaeans.”

    So: might want to look at the Penguin version # a bit more closely. I suspect you’ve the bad version that’s not actually correct.

    Anyhow, on topic:

    οἳ δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ σχεδὸν ἦσαν ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλοισιν ἰόντες,
    ἔνθ᾽ ἤτοι Πάτροκλος ἀγακλειτὸν Θρασύμηλον,
    ὅς ῥ᾽ ἠῢς θεράπων Σαρπηδόνος ἦεν ἄνακτος,
    τὸν βάλε νείαιραν κατὰ γαστέρα, λῦσε δὲ γυῖα.
    Σαρπηδὼν δ᾽ αὐτοῦ μὲν ἀπήμβροτε δουρὶ φαεινῷ
    δεύτερον ὁρμηθείς, ὃ δὲ Πήδασον οὔτασεν ἵππον
    ἔγχεϊ δεξιὸν ὦμον: ὃ δ᾽ ἔβραχε θυμὸν ἀΐσθων,
    κὰδ δ᾽ ἔπεσ᾽ ἐν κονίῃσι μακών, ἀπὸ δ᾽ ἔπτατο θυμός.
    τὼ δὲ διαστήτην, κρίκε δὲ ζυγόν, ἡνία δέ σφι
    σύγχυτ᾽, ἐπεὶ δὴ κεῖτο παρήορος ἐν κονίῃσι.
    τοῖο μὲν Αὐτομέδων δουρικλυτὸς εὕρετο τέκμωρ:
    σπασσάμενος τανύηκες ἄορ παχέος παρὰ μηροῦ
    ἀΐξας ἀπέκοψε παρήορον οὐδ᾽ ἐμάτησε:
    τὼ δ᾽ ἰθυνθήτην, ἐν δὲ ῥυτῆρσι τάνυσθεν:
    τὼ δ᾽ αὖτις συνίτην ἔριδος πέρι θυμοβόροιο.

    Book 16, 465-76


    That’s a fairly minor scene, that absolutely no-one anywhere will ever quote, where Hera and Zeus are arguing over intervening to save Mortals, amidst a lovely battle scene involving spears, horses, broken tack and death with a frankly totally minor Zeus sprog and a chariot battle. (Like, literally: has never been quoted evar).

    Here’s the punchline:

    It ties in a God (meta) level discussion about mortality, saving your favorites and so forth, with two things you missed:

    The Horse totally has a spirit and his ‘brother’ (i.e. the one in the same chariot pairing) is in trouble (well, dead via bad spear through, bro)

    A Hero comes and saves that horse, instead of killing off his opponent

    The two opposite heroes then rejoin battle with this line (475-6): and the two warriors came together again in soul-devouring strife.


    #1 Animals have spirits
    #2 Heroes protect innocent animals
    #3 Fighting amongst humans is “soul devouring”


    #4 Unsubtle parallel between paired horses and men, spirits and the self-destructive nature of war (man, you’re fighting yourselves!)

    You name me a story (Black Beauty doesn’t count) where that type of literary trope is being used in the next 1,000 years after it.

    Hint ~ More than about Pure War. But yes: lots of Testosterone, of course.

    But yeah: ditch the Penguin, try the real versions. Your version sounds like the abridged one (thus the Book # / line errors)

  7. Ugh. Hubris got me there.

    It’s, Automedon (which has it’s own etymology) his squire who sets the horse free from tangled tack: so, hey, throw in some proto-hierarchical Communist thoughts there.

    Since no-one will ever use this part again – it’s the bit where Homer sets up Patroclus as almost-as-good as Achilles.

    Spoilers: there’s a lot of minor character deaths to set up the heroes and who is important, and all of them have long lineages and histories.


    The Iliad: animal rights in 750(ish) BC: actually a thing.

  8. And, since Host and OP and all you Americans are under a pall of despair right now:

    I will give $10 for any reference found to that passage and animal souls and animal rights in any of the literature.


    If you can’t, anyone playing gets to throw $1 to the animal charity of their choice.

    [Spoilers: this is a Game that we know we win]

    (Please note: we are poor as Church Mice, so don’t go too wild).

  9. After I finished The Iliad I went, “Wow, no wonder it’s a classic.” Ares is not given much respect, as part of it not being pro-war.

    “The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force.” So writes Simone Weil, Chicago Review, in a piece of only about 25 excellent pages, with Greek translations checked by writer Mary McCarthy. (The Iliad or The Poem of Force) Simone, who died of starvation during the war, explains how force destroys both winners and losers. I have it bookmarked on my desktop because it is so good.

    I did a blog essay that I just can’t find on google. So instead of discretely leaving you to find it (since you can’t) I am including my URL to “Troy, the Iliad and Music.”

  10. Ares is not given much respect, as part of it not being pro-war.

    Well, no: the entire point of the saga is about differing ethical / moral / societal behaviors.


    You’re going to spill your milk once you know that Athena caused the death of Hector (and also Ajax, but hey) and the reasons why.

  11. Joke zone. The Horse gets a Name: Pedasus.

    No, really. No, really. If you get killed in a Greek Story, you’re getting a name.

    Find me something in the next 1,000 years (non-Egyptian, that’s cheating) where the animals in the story are named (ok, fine, Icelandic Sagas, actual animals, not mythical ones) and so on (Ok, FINE Western stories not Eastern Indian or Siberian ones or Indigenous American ones or…)

    Ok, look: the horse gets a name. It’s a big deal back then. Homer would have had to then (hello Mongols!) provide its heritage and…

    Actually this all about Spirits in Animals.



    I’m messing around since this theme is really going to be toxic soon and we’re providing a diversion tactic to getting roped into the Culture Wars[tm].

    We do it because winning at war feels great. I wanted my characters to have the same feelings as Hector: to understand simultaneously that war is bloody and horrible, but also glorious and exciting and fun.

    Hector explicitly spends most of the early books telling Paris he’s a complete fucking idiot and then gets beaten not because of just Achilles’ might but because a Goddess tricks everyone and engineers his downfall, not because She has a personal thing with him (like Ajax, who is a Greek hero who actually partook in the rape of her temple and gets smacked down later), but because of the friend he’s protecting.

    In fact, Hector spends the entire saga as a doomed noble man who everyone nods to and goes “Whelp, he’s totally fucked, wouldn’t want to be in his shoes“, despite him being one of the really upstanding characters.

    But hey.

    Athena: better than Ares, still not very friendly to Males in general.

  12. No, really. Pedasus.

    It’s like Pegasus’ lowly cousin who didn’t get the hero gig or the wings and got a minor bit part in the epics but you just know he’s a bit (well, spirit here, he got killed off in book XVI) jealous.

    (Note: we’re aware that Πήδασος is actually a town that Achilles / Agamemnon sacked earlier in the sagas and the names are no-where close in Greek: it’s all a metaphor for why Patroclus’ fate is sealed even though Homer is killing off a minor deity sprog).

    Oh, gosh: Πήγασος / Πήδασος , nope, works in Ancient Greek too.

    Anyhow: if you’re putting crappy geographical / wing gags into the minor horse characters you’re killing off?

    Chances are it’s not all about war :(

  13. Apologies to OP: you try spending a thousand years listening to the same Epic Sagas, you get good at critique, even the bits no-one in the 20th Century has ever referenced, ever, and then make a Mythical funny joke about it.

    I mean, have to authenticate credentials and all that. [FOR REAL]

    We’re not bitter, but trust me: we preferred your book to the nth rendition of Homer’s slurred epic by the local bard.

    But – not about war. Mostly about homoerotic singing and clenches around the fire.

  14. Achilles is the exemplary hero among the Greeks. Here
    he speaks in council before King Agammemnon, their leader.

    Then looking darkly at him Achilleus of the swift feet spoke:
    ‘O wrapped in shamelessness, with your mind forever on profit,
    how shall any one of the Achaians readily obey you
    either to go on a journey or to fight men strongly in battle?
    I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan
    spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing.
    Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses,
    never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great did they
    spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that lies between us,
    the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea; but for your sake,
    o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favour,
    you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honour and Menelaos’
    from the Trojans. You forget all this or else you care nothing.

    (Lattimore’s translation)

    In context it’s actually a harsher speech than it now seems;
    see Caroline Alexander, “The war that killed Achilles”.


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