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`Eris' and `Eros' : Caroline Alexander's `The War that Killed Achilles'
on 4 April 2010
When I originally saw this volume, my first reaction was: 'Oh, no! Not another book about Homer's `Iliad' ...' but the thematic pulse is as outlined on the inside of the front cover: 'Caroline Alexander's extraordinary book is not about any of the rational concerns that have occupied classicists for centuries. Its focus is both simpler and more radical' [...]; this book is about what the `Iliad' says of war'.
Basically, it is a concordance to the `Iliad', - specifically Richmond Lattimore's well-loved 1951 translation. The clear lucid writing is good enough to make one ignore the American spellings, and Alexander's apercus draw on both ancient and modern history as well as the textual sources. Although it's traditionally said Homer was blind, from the visually intense descriptions running through the epic, and the images the poet employs, this is unlikely: the high price of `kleos' (glory or immortal fame) is iterated and reiterated. Despite the Olympian gods overseeing the conflict at Troy, men die - 'the mortality of the Homeric warrior is never compromised' (p. 67), - bar the case of the Trojan Aineias (Virgil's Aeneas) who, having suffered a severely dislocated hip in Book 5 is still battling on in Bk. 20, which is medically impossible. (Rome would have had to find itself another foundation myth if Homer had killed off Aeneas, but, interestingly, Alexander mentions recent research (2007) which found Etruscan DNA originating from Anatolia.)
There is a clear distinction between history and poetry: while the former describes what took place, the latter sees what might be expressed as events which are `sub specie aeternitatis'. The book rehabilitates the fictional character of Achilles, who has suffered at the hands of writers down the ages, e.g., Wm. Shakespeare's portrait depicted the Greek hero in an unflattering light - petulant and pathologically arrogant - but Alexander's study is less of a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out. Like Homer, she teases out the real psychological impact of war and loss on human emotions, conscience and common decency. Her reading of Achilles, reflected in that of her hero, 'demonstrates profound knowledge of the disposition of men's souls, including his own' (p. 210). One thing the work highlights is that scholarly classical research can detach one from human affairs, and in the places where Alexander sees the 'Iliad' in the light of other ME wars, Iraq, post-combat stress and total futility she manages to dent, if not actually deflate, some of the loftier academic Oxbridge views regarding Homer's work.
The notes to the text are exhaustive, though never tedious (no small feat!) Despite the lack of a formal bibliography all the sources are well-documented, plus there is a comprehensive list of further recommended primary and secondary readings.
I was puzzled by Faber and Faber classifying it as a junior title and, having contacted the publishers' editorial department, was informed the categorization's the result of a system error which was proving difficult to erase. The book's aimed at adults and was never intended as a children's book, although Amazon list the title in their current 40% reduction in children's section. ... How on earth did F&F make an error like this?! However, 'The War that Killed Achilles' is an exceptional book, and definitely one for the Homeric shelf.