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Thursday, July 8, 2010



The War that Killed Achilles – Caroline Alexander (Viking; 2009)

            When a boy, the Autodidact first opened The Iliad having no more than a vague idea about it; that it had to do with ancient Greeks. The paperback bookstore had a Penguin Classics version for relatively cheap, found while browsing the shelves. The version was not the famous Lattimore version in poetic verse, but one in prose translation. It didn’t have an inspiring cover, it wasn’t the largest book among others, or the shortest. It was just something about the title; a name, a string of letters pronounceable and exotic. Notwithstanding, it seemed an ambitious read for a kid living deep in the American provinces when telephones were still rotary and the library and a couple of bookstores in town comprised the resources for the reading public. This kid loved to read in a household whose modest shelves held the Bible, Christian commentaries, some bestsellers, Churchill’s histories, Time Life coffee table books, Encyclopedia Britannica, and that was about it.

            So, The Iliad was a foray into the dark unknown. From the other side of the Greek Dark Ages, from the other side of the European Dark Ages and the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars, this kid curled up in a chair and opened a book 2,500 years old without the faintest grasp of what it was about; much indeed as some kid must have must have drawn up his knees behind his elders in the firelight of some 700 BC meeting place and listened, for the very first time, to a blind poet who had somehow survived the dangerous roads to come to tell a famous story.

            Idomeneus, Diomedes, Ajax, Hector, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles and Patroclus, the Myrmidons, the Achaeans and the Trojans and, of course the Gods, swooped down into this kid’s head in an explosion of dirty tricks, horrible deaths, and what seemed like a vicious knife fight that might never end. I couldn’t put it down. The Autodidact had seen the World War II movies: John Wayne and a lot of other actors on ships, in planes and tanks and landing craft; wisecracking privates and stern commanders racing across deserts and oceans, huddling in jungles, hitting the beaches.

            But this was different. Hollywood didn't like to show the screaming wounded. It didn't like to show you who that Jap really was; his mother and father and sister; or who the Americans really were, their families, etc. that's only come later. Back then, in the 1950's, it was Us and Them, and we were all heroes and they were all villains. Crazy, paranoia, attempts at myth and legend that failed for lack of dimension, heart and soul.

             The Illiad told the Autodidactic kid about that the dude who just got the spear through his groin and the blood gushed out; how his parents would mourn and what a great guy he had been when he was home and not trying to kill other guys and what agony it was and how he didn't just die but he sank into a world of shadows and eternal sorrow.

            Different. I can't say it made me watch fewer war movies and enjoy them. Hey! i was a kid! But it caught my transient attention and something of it sank into my synapses, something made the juvenile Autodidact's thoroughly unconcious processes crank, heave and fall into gear.

            And the kid took something of it away with him, without understanding it so's you'd know it, but something nevertheless sank in and stayed.

            Only when older did the Autodidact hear the story of the whole Trojan War, its outline, from the theft, or seduction, of Helen, to the Trojan horse and the burning of Troy - Ilium – though he knew from the Iliad that the war was all about a spurned husband and a treacherous adulterer. And only then did it occur to the Autodidact that the Iliad didn’t start with Helen leaving her husband, and it didn’t end with the burning of Troy. Why?

            Now Caroline Alexander’s book has taken the story, torn it apart, and put it all back together for the Autodidact. Ms. Alexander is an inspired writer of narrative history and evidences rigorous preparation. For anyone interested in Greek history, Western Literature, or simply why John Wayne so grimly pursued Glory in all those movies without, so far as this Autodidact can remember, ever uttering the word itself, this book is required reading.

            Ms. Alexander explores this question and the other ones raised by it: If the Iliad doesn’t cover the whole Trojan War, where’s the rest of it? Is The Iliad simply a surviving fragment? And why did The Iliad survive more than 2,000 years as a whole story and not the one(s) that did tell the whole story? It doesn’t even cover the death of Achilles, although Achilles is the main character. And why Homer? Who was he and was he even one guy or a single name for a stream of storytellers across the Greek Dark Age?

            The War That Killed Achilles says that Homer was one guy at the end of a string of guys who told the story, but he was the One. The cohesion of the story, its language, and its intricate themes which flew right over the head of the Autodidact when he was a kid, mainly because of the great holes of knowledge which have characterized the Autodidact’s education then and ever since, persuasively point  to a poet of extraordinary abilities to synthesize the traditions of the story and weave it into something new. That something new is what makes the Iliad, in all its apparent incompleteness, a complete dissertation on war and peace, on life and death. The story is like Paris. It seduces with the accepted and popular appearances: its themes of Glory, its beautiful poetry. It illuminates existential dilemmas as it proceeds inexorably toward the ending that every listener already knows, yet we can’t take our eyes off it.

            This book also takes into account what is known about other stories of the Trojan War which are fragmentary or only found in other ancient writings that allude to them. It takes names and lineages that would have been understood by the inhabitants of the dark age in which the story evolved, of gods and heroes and families and other tragedies that would have been known, so that the reader can get a sense of what the audience already knew when Homer told his story.

            And it rightly centers the focus on Achilles, a man with one foot on Mount Olympus and one foot in an early grave. He knows he is fated to die young unless he sails home pretty quick. He is both unsentimental about war and impervious to lures of Glory. He falls into sulking inactivity by an outrage to his honor, even as his comrades die in battle after battle and the Achaeans are nearly destroyed, but then he is spurred to action by another outrage that demands revenge, even knowing the path down which it must lead him.
            The War That Killed Achilles is a modern condensation of background to supply that which we, millenia later, as scions of  Western Civilization see only dimly through the filters of hundreds of wars, thousands of years. The brilliance of the Iliad is that a kid can read it without knowing any of this and find himself somehow grasping the fascination of it, then, decades later, return to the place he thought he knew and find the terrible beauty that still speaks, still holds us to the end we already know is coming.