In her preface, Caroline Alexander writes that, "Now, as at any time, Homer's masterpiece is an epic for our time." The desire to reflect the events of the `Iliad' into contemporary times - whether they be Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, or the trenches of the First World War - is not new of course, and each generation will use its take on Homer's epic to suit its present agenda. Alexander is no exception, with apposite remarks on these later conflicts being made where appropriate, but these are couched within what seems to me to be the book's primary objective, namely to retell the story of the `Iliad' and be a guide to the new reader of Homer or to the less than knowledgeable reader. (I came to Homer via Michael Wood's book and TV series on the Trojan War of the 1980s, and it is good to see his book listed in the recommendations for further reading.)
That's not to say that Alexander does not have a valid argument beyond this primary task of being a companion to the reader of the `Iliad'. Again in her preface, she traces concisely the history of the epic's translation down the ages, noting how "the perception of the `Iliad''s central hero, Achilles, shifted, and so accordingly did the perceived meaning of the epic ... Thus, while the `Iliad''s poetry and tragic vision were much extolled, the epic's blunter message [she believes] tended to be overlooked." An example of her less war-as-heroism approach is to remark how Homer treats the deaths of Trojans and Greeks equally, humanising the enemy. And, in an interesting exploration of Achilles's unique background and place in the narrative, she argues that, "the ancient story of the Trojan War would not culminate as an epic extolling martial glory but as a dark portrayal of the cost of war." Alexander's interpretation of Achilles's embassy speech is that "Life is more precious than glory; this is the unheroic truth disclosed by the greatest warrior at Troy."
The author opens her companion to the `Iliad' by reciting what we know of Troy, of the war and its context, as well as of Homer and his. She hints that the `Iliad' itself was only part of a wider cycle of epic poems on the war. In ten chapters, whose titles have a contemporary meaning for the modern patriot in the study of war - `Chain of Command', `Terms of Engagement', `Land of My Fathers', et al, - Alexander takes us through the epic, stage by stage, and comments on the events and the contexts in which they occur.
But the book's usefulness lies also in revealing odd facts through interesting digressions, such as traditions regarding relationships between gods and mortals, or such as the epic's only reference to writing, or that recent DNA evidence shows the Etruscans did indeed come from Asia Minor, thus supporting the traditions of Virgil's `Aeneid'. And, in a long endnote, she (alas!) puts paid to any homosexual hint in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. These endnotes are often long and of great insight; it would have been better to have had them as footnotes to reduce the hassle of constant page-work. It's a pity too that there are no colour plates of items described, such as the shield found in the eastern Mediterranean ascribed to the period of the war.
Through these digressions on and expansions of points raised in the `Iliad', we learn so much about the latest thoughts on a wide range of academic issues: about art and archaeology, about literature and religion, and about other comparative cultures in both the eastern Mediterranean and the wider Indo-European world. But, come the book's end, Alexander's essential point concerning what the `Iliad' is about returns centre-stage and is made more cogent by her analysis of the death of Hector, and with the epic's end focussing on King Priam's request for his son's body to be released by Achilles. But even more than this, Alexander concludes that Achilles did not die for glory, but for Patroclus. She concludes that, "after the roll of centuries, this same `Iliad', whose message had been so clearly grasped by ancient poets and historians, came to be perceived as a martial epic glorifying war is one of the great ironies of literary history." This is made all the more poignant by the presence of "the serried headstones" at Gallipoli just across the waters of the Dardanelles. They not only bare the words, `Their names liveth for evermore', but also, `Their glory shall not be blotted out".
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.
on 5 April 2010
There has probably been more written about Homer than any writer other than Shakespeare. Yet Caroline Alexander manages to bring a fresh and invigorating perspective to a reading of The Iliad and, in particular to the character and dramatic place of its hero, Achilles. While not classics trained, I am moved by Homer's great works and their thrilling language and I found myself thinking about the themes and personalities of The Iliad in a new way. In particular, Alexander's focus is on Homer's radical portrayal of war. As she takes us through Homer's gripping story, covering a few weeks of the decade long campaign against the Trojans, she convinces us that rather than being the glorification and romanticisation transmitted to Public Schoolboys (yes, mostly boys) over many generations, The Iliad is really a stark and shockingly graphic diatribe about the stupidity and waste of war. She reminds us just how much Achilles was actually anti-establishment, how contemptuous he was of the hierarchy - his lord Agamemnon in particular - and how pointless and unjustified he thought the war. Readable as it is, her work is clearly deeply researched scholarship, not coffee table gloss. She reminds us that the stupidity of humans is only surpassed by the infantile irresponsibility of the Gods, in all their bloody playground bickering. My only quibble is that her attempt to make parallels with accounts of modern warfare feels forced and thinly supported, in contrast with the rest of her argument. I strongly recommend this book - if you love Homer, you can only gain from her clear insight; if you have never read The Iliad, this will make you want to go out and buy it.
on 2 April 2010
An ex RSM I knew had a mug he always drank his tea from. Unlike my RSM friend, it was a mug of few words: on it was written "Be the best" and "The Army". In the 8th century BC Homer described an army with the same motto. But whereas the British Army seeks superiority in comparison with other armies, the Homeric hero sought to be the best of his fellow warriors - even if it killed him, or them. Nestor tells Agamemnon he's the best, because he rules more men - and that Achilles is also best because he's the best fighter. The audience is not fooled by this heroic attempt at compromise. We know Achilles is better than Agamemnon, Ajax, Odysseus - and of course Hector. And the Iliad's purpose is to show this: the best man is willful, stubborn, self-absorbed, arrogant - but if he's really the best it doesn't matter. Arrogance is only unacceptable in lesser spirits. Mohammed Ali (compared brilliantly to Achilles by the author) was excused everything because he really was the greatest - just as he claimed.
Caroline Alexander doesn't refer to Simone Weil's "The Iliad, the poem of power". But like Weil, she realises that the poem is a condemnation of war and and all that it brings. (So often Homer includes a sort of hypertext link, where we "jump" from the battlefield into a peaceful scene of everyday life.) The Trojan War was not something which the gods dreamed up so that heroes could have a chance to show their courage in a suitable arena (as Euripides suggested - along with the more realistic idea that it was to ease the population problem!), but it is the most terrible thing that men can find themselves entangled in. And there is no glory, least of all for Achilles - only death. And this is the strength of the book in question - while retelling the Iliad in a mixture of her own words and Homer's(in her own decent translation), she never loses focus on what the poem is about. Her last chapter, where she reviews the references to Achilles in the Odyssey is brilliant. Achilles was right - once life is lost, there is nothing.
Troy, Carthage, Jerusalem, Coventry, Dresden, Nagasaki, Baghdad ... the destruction of city is among the most appalling crimes human beings can commit. And no one has shown us more vividly than Homer in the Iliad. And Caroline Alexander makes you want to read it - for the first time or the fiftieth, in translation or in the original. Maybe one person will be inspired to learn Greek by this book - that alone would justify it. It's a very fine appetiser indeed.
Having read The Iliad (Lattimore's translation) once through, I then read this book. It also uses Lattimore's translation, and intersperses parts of the Iliad into a narrative which describes, as it analyses, the action in the epic poem. The author clearly has a love of the Iliad and of Greek heroic poetry, and uses her knowledge and skill to weave a story that, read together with the Iliad, offers the reader a fuller understanding and context of the whole tragedy that was Ilion.
This is a great book; it can be read alone, or used as I did with Lattimore's translation of the Iliad to assist the reader in really getting `under the skin' of the story; this way the reader really gains more from the story as a whole, understanding some of the Greek heroic traditions, the epic poetry traditions, the myths and Gods of ancient Greek and Troy. Homer's wonderful poem is a gem that will outlast us all; this book serves to underline its greatness, and gives it an extra layer of shine to enhance its beauty for the reader. I'm now off to read Lattimore's Iliad again.
on 27 January 2012
Being interested in the classics for some decades, I thought I knew what to expect when purchasing this book; I didn't. Achilles emerges as a film noire hero, morally defective but in the end a descent chap. This book answers one important question and raises a new one. On the one hand, it explains what educated elites could see through the centuries into the narrative of Iliad; on the other, it makes one wonder about the psyche of that initial audience that allowed the early "Iliad" song to survive. Were they troubled aristocratic souls feeling trapped in the role cast upon them by a declining heroic era? Were their feasts around the big clay hearth of Nestor's palace excavated in Pylos melancholic, soul-searching, affairs where the sad music of Homer filled the air? This book indices you in many hours of fruitful speculation once you have finished reading it.
The first thing that we were taught in the military is that no two wars of the same. There are similarities which makes it worth reading the history of war but one does not want to be caught up in history and miss the new opportunities.
"The war that killed Achilles" by Caroline Alexander is just that it's a book on war. The advantages and disadvantages on a personal level. It just happens to use Homer's Iliad and other sources of the Trojan War to bring home these points.
Caroline's thrust is to, through a series of footnotes, show how the Trojan War or any war is the same for us today. She compares and contrasts to a lot of recent wars. I've gone through the Vietnam War and I'm really surprised at her keen insight. However the big eye-opener was when she compared Thetis obtaining divine armor to protect her son in war in hopes of his survival to that of holding bake sales so mothers could purchase ceramic armor for the sons in recent wars.
The book was written to give an over view of war in general however I found quite a few small dissertations in areas of the Iliad that I must've overlooked or forgotten and now I will have to reread it keeping Carolyn Alexander's research in mind.
There are quite a few translations of the Iliad but the one that is used by Caroline Alexander for her samples and examples is that of Richard Lattimore first published in 1951 by the University of Chicago press.
The hardcover book and even the electronic versions of this book have minimalist pictures so if you're more of a visual person you will have to pick up your pictures in another location.
Depending on if you look at it as a blessing or curse this book will lead you to want to read not just the Iliad but related stories that were used to compare and contrast. So once you start reading this book get out your credit card and prepare to expand your library.
This is not a book about the Trojan War, per se. It is not a history book; it doesn't aim to compare legend to fact, to seek out traces of the historical Troy in the archaeological record. What it does is explore what The Iliad says about war, the position it takes, the speeches put into the mouths of the great heroes about war and conflict and death and glory.
As Caroline Alexander points out, it is perhaps the greatest of all literary ironies that The Iliad is best remembered as a martial epic, when it is in fact a deep subversion of the very genre it is held to epitomise. There are no winners in Homer's Trojan War - he depicts the conflict as equally tragic for both sides, nothing but waste and stupidity. Troy is destroyed, its people slaughtered and enslaved, but the victors are exiled from their homes for ten years and few return to happiness and long life. Achilles himself is deeply aware that he is fighting in a meaningless war that will only bring him loss, grief and death, and it is only to avenge Patrocles that he fights in the end, not for honour or glory, knowing full well it will mean his doom. Achilles is an intensely anti-authoritarian figure throughout the poem, repeatedly challenging his 'commander-in-chief' Agamemnon and emphasizing that he does not believe war or glory is worth his life.
Despite my familiarity with the story of the Trojan War, Caroline Alexander succeeded in making me see it in a new light. I feel I've misread Achilles all these years - whilst Homer may not have taken sides, I was definitely always with Hector and the Trojans, believing Achilles to be little more than a vainglorious, bloodthirsty bully. I think I'm going to go back to The Iliad now, and read it again with fresh new insight, thanks to this book.
on 11 February 2011
Caroline Alexander has done a fine job in combining a retelling of Homer's Iliad (using Richmond Lattimore's verse translation) with a judicious amount of background information and explanation. At the same time she highlights the timelessness of the epic's message with her references to Vietnam and other conflicts. If you have read the Iliad or are studying it the book will present you with running commentary and with fresh insights and understanding. If you have not, it will introduce you to it in a highly readable way - and might even tempt you to read the whole thing.
on 26 March 2010
If you read the Iliad a long time a go, and think you have read a war story, then this book will give another perspective. If, on the other hand, you have studied the book in any detail, you will appreciate that this is very complex, and shows the futility of war. It is not appropriate to ascribe 'psychological' insights to the author, if we think of modern concepts of the personality, but we can consider the attitudes of the time as expressed in the work. The motto of the characters might be "Strive to be the best", and by 'best' is meant in the opinion of others. The acts of heroism are not noble by modern standards, indeed, they are often ignoble. I hope that anyone reading this book will be inspired to go to the original and read, or re-read, it. I feel that I did not learn anything that I did not know, but it reminded me of the fact that this, as well as being the earliest example of western literature, can be regarderd as the best.