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The Walled Orchard #1

Goatsong: A Novel of Ancient Athens

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Eupolis of Pallene, playwright and satirist, offers new and wicked perspectives on the glory that was Greece. A startling mixture of comedy and tragedy, The Walled Orchard is a poignant historical novel set in Greece.

247 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1989

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About the author

Tom Holt

99 books1,050 followers
Tom Holt (Thomas Charles Louis Holt) is a British novelist.
He was born in London, the son of novelist Hazel Holt, and was educated at Westminster School, Wadham College, Oxford, and The College of Law, London.
Holt's works include mythopoeic novels which parody or take as their theme various aspects of mythology, history or literature and develop them in new and often humorous ways. He has also produced a number of "straight" historical novels writing as Thomas Holt and fantasy novels writing as K.J. Parker.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews143 followers
June 16, 2022
What would you do if the plague killed all your family and made you ugly?
You inherited all your dead family's land and become rich enough to marry, but your wife cannot stand living with you?
Why - you write plays!


A historical novel set in Greece. Eupolis of Pallene, playwright and satirist, offers new and wicked perspectives on the glory that was Greece.

Eupolis talks directly to you - the reader
There are a great many things in this book which would conceivably need explaining, and I am certainly not going to explain them all. That would be insufferably tedious. If, therefore, I refer to something which you do not understand or have not heard of, I advise you to keep quiet and use your intelligence to try and work out from the context what is going on, as I have had to do all my life. Pretend that this is not a book at all, but some enthralling conversation you are eavesdropping on in the Baths or the Fish Market.

His beginning
Now, I was born and bred in Attica, and the City of Athens was always there in the background; but I had little to do with it in those days when the great men you all know so much about were carving their names on the walls of history. My early boyhood was not spent in the company of great men; in fact, it was spent mainly in the company of goats. My father was reasonably well off, and a fair percentage of his wealth consisted of a flock of hardy but troublesome goats which needed looking after. Goat-herding is not difficult, but neither is it particularly stimulating and pleasant. Accordingly, as soon as I was old enough to be out on my own, I was appointed Chief Goatherd and turned out on to the sides of Hymettus.


After the plague
They redesigned the economy of the City slightly to accommodate their changed patterns of living, so that more people got out of agriculture altogether and started to specialise in the urban industries, like sitting on juries, metalwork and burglary. In fact, quite a substantial number of men caught the plague from breaking into infected houses, which caused considerable amusement to their neighbours.

War correspondence
There is an art to writing military despatches, I suppose; my favourite is one supposed to have been sent by a Spartan officer later on in the War, which went something like, ‘Ships all sunk. General dead. Soldiers starving. Haven’t the faintest idea what to do next. Advise.’

The people of Athens decided to conquer the island of Sicily with their massive conventional army. They were not prepared for the enemy's style of guerrilla warfare. This was the Vietnam war for Athens.

Escaping from a lost battle Eupolis takes a hostage
I pulled the magistrate’s hair sharply, which made him squeak like a mouse. ‘Be fair,’ I said. ‘You’re going to cut my head off if I let him go. I’ve always wanted to kill someone in regional government, now’s my chance.’
‘If you think you’re going to get away with this—’ said the captain. I gave the magistrate a tiny shove. He obligingly screamed.
‘Go away,’ I shouted. ‘Quickly. Now. Save yourself the trouble of divisive local elections.’
. . .
We were lost, without food or transport, going in the wrong direction, and the whole of Sicily would soon be out after our blood, but we were still alive. Not bad going, I reflected, for a pair of comedians in a world that undervalues Comedy.


Few stories set in the time of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta have humor, but Goatsong/the Walled Orchards is brimming with clever similes .

Profile Image for Jane.
1,564 reviews177 followers
May 24, 2017
Story of ancient Greece, yes, and chock full of satire, humor, and even silliness sometimes. After having just slogged my way through a really serious book, I came to this one not knowing what to expect, but I found out: silly can be a cure for what ails you!! I loved the unpretentiousness of the novel, and the absolute candor and self-effacement of the protagonist.

In the days of Pericles and the Golden Age of Greece we meet Eupolis of Pallene [city NE of Athens] in rocky Attica. Eupolis wishes so very much to be a famous comic poet. His rival turns out to be the great comic playwright Aristophanes, and Eupolis somehow just doesn't come up to the mark. The novel is purportedly Eupolis' 'History'. But against Dexitheus the bookseller's advice Eupolis doesn't write it in formal fashion; he uses his own style, so it's more of an autobiography. He plows right into his story. We feel like we're listening his ramblings: sincere, earnest, following his own strange logic, with whimsical digressions, leading back to the main story. The novel is full of humor [the chuckling, smiling kind, not the belly laugh kind]. It skewers politics, politicians, war, peace, and naturally, the theater. We meet Eupolis' shrewish wife, Phaedra; Eupolis is certainly no Petruchio, although Phaedra is his Kate! Eupolis in his 'History' spears the well-known figures of his day: Pericles and Cleon the statesmen, Alcibiades the war hero, Aristophanes the playwright, Athens/Sparta animosity [the Spartans invade and burn Athenian villages, fields, and vineyards every summer like [water] clockwork]. Eupolis completes his Magnum Opus, "The General" but the play is a pale shadow of any of Aristophanes' plays. Poor Eupolis is an also-ran. Even the Chorus costumed as triremes cannot save his play.

Someone else mentioned here in another review a good analogy--Salieri to Mozart. The whole section involving "The General" is an absolute gem. Dexitheus has convinced Eupolis to divide his 'History' into two parts; I for one am eager to read Part II: The Walled Orchard.

I loved the humor and even the occasional silliness of the novel. The satire hit its targets. I was reminded somewhat of Douglas Adams' humor. I liked all the characters; I couldn't even hate the "villains." I wish Eupolis hadn't been such a milquetoast with Phaedra, though.

Highly recommended for lovers of satire and humor. Ancient Greece is an added bonus.
Profile Image for MB (What she read).
2,349 reviews14 followers
June 30, 2016
Reread 9/16/13: Reading my textbook reminded me of this favorite book. Time to pull it out for a re-read!

It's amazing how much information, as well as humor, Holt manages to pack into this novel. If you want a glimpse of daily life in Ancient Athens, start here. (I always want to compare this book to Amadeus. Basically, Euopolis is to Salieri what Aristophanes is to Mozart.)

Another happy bit of serendipity was that my Vocabulary Word of the Day email defined Tragedy as "Goat Song" in Greek. Who knew?!?

So...you've been warned: This is a tragicomedy similar to Amadeus. Holt fans may find it is more of a slog (as are all of his historicals) than Holt's later books. History buffs should enjoy it. Others may find it hard going. Your brain needs to be set to "on", I've found.

Again, please be aware, both Goatsong and The Walled Orchard, as well as his Marathon book (can't remember the title) are very different in reading experience than his usual satirical fantasy oeuvre. I think you should know this about them going in. These are much less lighthearted. However, they are very darkly humorous.

Cover Art: This is an instance where the cover art perfectly complements the inside. See that satyr there? Love it.
Profile Image for Vivencio.
125 reviews1 follower
October 18, 2012
all in all, a light but great read about Eupolis of Pallene, a comedy playright in ancient greece.
Profile Image for Zoey.
178 reviews1 follower
December 17, 2017
A little slow at first, but once the story got going it was surprisingly good. There was lots of comedy and I found that it was fun to analyze the story. I would recommend this book for a book club. There are some good discussions to be had.
Profile Image for Beth.
228 reviews1 follower
January 1, 2009
I enjoyed this book more than the other Tom Holt book I read this year (Little People). It's set in ancient Greece and Pericles and Sophocles make cameo appearances. It's a fun story.
Profile Image for EmBe.
932 reviews22 followers
December 1, 2021
Ich bekam das Buch vor langer Zeit als Geschenk, der Schenker hat es selbst nicht gelesen, fand es aber interessant. Es ist ein historischer Roman aus dem klassischen Griechenland, der bei Heyne als Fantasy belabelt wurde, weil die anderen Werke des Autors Fantasy sind. Der Ich-Erzähler ist ein imaginärer athenischer Komödienautor, den die Geschichte gewissermaßen verschluckt hat. Seinerzeit ist er genauso bekannt wie Aristophanes, mit der in Konkurrenz steht und an dem er kein gutes Haar lässt. Das Komische soll wohl vom süffisanten Stil (des Originals) herkommen, aber von der Fallhöhe: die hehren Vorstellungen, die man als Leser vom antiken Athen und seinen Bewohnern hat oder haben kann, werden vom Erzähler gründlich zerpflückt. Der Erzähler muss sich unter anderem mit seiner frisch verheirateten Frau herumstreiten. Die ist zwar schön, aber eine wahre Xanthippe. Und dann muss er auch noch Kriegsdienst leisten. Aber er schafft es nebenbei dann doch noch, eine Komödie zu schreiben: "Der Ziegenchor".
Ich habe das Buch gerne gelesen. Es war unterhaltsam und manchmal auch komisch. Außerdem war es historisch interessant. Aber wenn ich es nicht geschenkt bekommen hätte, hätte ich es vemutlich nie in die Hand genommen.
Profile Image for Annette.
752 reviews17 followers
June 14, 2009
After enjoying Barking and [Book:You don't have to be evil to work here but it helps], I've been going back through Holt's bibliography to see what else I like. I wasn't actually too impressed with this one. It purports to be the autobiography of one Eupolis, a comic poet of Athens. It's not Bad, per say, but the plot is meandering and never seems to get anywhere important. Also, the timeline frequently doubles back on itself in a confusing manner. There are zillions of Greek names, which is logical enough given the setting but they get hard to remember. What with the constant flashbacks and foreshadowing, it often seemed that characters were resurrected - "wait, didn't that Criticus dude die back in the third chapter? What's he doing with lines in this one?" None of the characters were particularly compelling, either, and I lost what sympathy I had for the narrator and his unfortunate choice of mates when I saw how he treated her. While there certainly was some humor and a few acerbic comments on democracy and politics, all in all it wasn't worth the slog. It ends before anything really serious happens, with the promise that the fall of Athens (which is what the narrator initially set out to tell) would be covered in a follow up novel - so that the bookseller could sell two short books at a drachma each instead of one longer one at a drachma and a half. Amusingly frank, but I'm not buying it: I don't plan to seek out the rest of the series.
Profile Image for Helen.
235 reviews4 followers
September 22, 2019
I found this book (omnibus of pt1 & 2, but I have only read book 1!) in a charity shop and bought because I am a big fan of Tom Holt. This is very different to anything else I have read by Holt, there is no fantasy/magic/magical beings/dimensions etc. It is however an enjoyable read. I would have possibly enjoyed it more if I had a richer historical knowledge, this did not put me off though, still a great read, and a lucky find!
Profile Image for Christopher.
244 reviews50 followers
April 23, 2020
This book is amazing. It is consistently amusing and often funny, as its purpose seems to be, being a comedy about a Comedy playwright in Ancient Athens. The perspective it offers is that of an ugly, excluded, little man with a beautiful, truly nasty wife, which sets it apart from all the tales of beautiful, muscular men playing around nakedly in the gymnasium, so there's always a touch of irreverence where elsewhere you might expect respectful contemplation.

I had just finished reading another book on Ancient Athens by Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine, which is just about my favorite novel ever. I think I read them in the wrong order, for this book ends with the smashing of the Hermes immediately prior to the Sicilian Expedition, just as that book nearly begins with that event. But where Renault showed the homosexual side of the city, filled with philosophy and nude wrestling and male love (especially of older men for younger), Goatsong offers a glimpse at the life of Athens for its not-so-favored sons.

My great appreciation of this novel snuck up on me gradually, about halfway through. At first it seemed like a weaker, albeit funnier, alternative to Renault's masterpiece, but now I see how they so perfectly complete each other. I say that before having read the sequel, which deals with the same disaster which is the focus of The Last of the Wine and thus may ultimately change my overall perspective to a degree.

Eupolis of Pallene is the narrator, and we follow his life from the time he loses his family (and his hair and a finger) in the plague, inheriting a lot of small lots of land from lots of different now-dead relations until he has quite some wealth, we witness the process of his composition of and finally production of his first play, mixed in with some interactions with the Spartans and Sicilians, his rivalry with Aristophanes, and his friendship with Little Zeus, who becomes his body guard after Eupolis offers to pay for him to get his farm back on track (lest Eupolis should be struck down by some accident and the gift never materialize).

All in all, the reader is treated to a delightful view of a time in history everyone has heard of but which few seem to know nearly well enough. Ancient Greece, and especially Athens, have become cliches in modern society, but with novels like this, they finally come back to life. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Clarissa.
1,250 reviews32 followers
September 21, 2020
Hilarious historical fiction set in ancient Athens. Eupolis is a comedy playwright, who addresses his life story to the reader. We get his views on life, and the people of his time. The plague leaves him orphaned and ugly, but wealthy. He marries a woman with a strong personality, and they spend their married life fighting, while Eupolis writes plays. The book is much funnier than I have just made it sound.
353 reviews4 followers
April 27, 2022
Like its sequel, "The Walled Orchard," and "Meadowland," this is one of Holt's brilliant historical novels, and the first of the genre I ever read that wasn't from the "Well, here we are in olden times" school of fiction. Funny, touching in parts, thoroughly researched (as far as I could tell) without straining for detail, and with a truly scary account of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE.
254 reviews
March 30, 2023
This was unlike the usual Tom Holt, though it has the same waspish sense of humour evinced in the voice of Eupolis the comic playwright, contemporary of his hated rival Aristophanes, as he weaves his tale between Athenian Theatre on the one hand and the Peloponnesian War, interspersed with his own story as a dramatist, diplomat and besotted husband, and his comments on the leading personalities of the day, including Socrates, Pericles and Alcibiades. An astonishingly magnetic novel.

Profile Image for Megan.
1,515 reviews18 followers
January 31, 2022
4.5* I enjoyed the humor and the writing style. In some ways this book felt just like a Comedy: the narrator is more concerned with the lighter things and with his own business than with the high themes of Tragedy or History of what was going on around him. Even if I did want to shake him a few times.
August 2, 2020
I don't understand reviews calling this book humorous. I have read many Tom Holt books, they are adventurous and funny. This one was neither. I was overwhelmingly bored and though I forced myself to get at least through half of it I never finished.
200 reviews
October 10, 2021
I enjoyed it enough to order the second book in the set from Amazon, but not enough to go on a Tom Holt buying spree. I'll know more once I read the second book.
Profile Image for Neil.
587 reviews
April 12, 2023
Couldn't finish. Wasn't up for long form greek mythology.
Profile Image for Tyson.
205 reviews
November 18, 2008
I didn't care for this book nearly as much as I do for the other Tom Holt novels. it takes place in ancient Greece without bringing the puns and satire Holt normally has in abundace.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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