The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander (2009)

At first I thought this might be a cheesy version of The Iliad, partly because the cover image—ashen hands emerging from the dirt—looks like something out of a second rate horror movie and partly because the title seems a little dramatic.  However, by the first chapter I realized this is the work of a scholar. Caroline Alexander takes us on an enlightening journey through Homer’s Iliad, and reading this was sort of like sitting in on an intimate lecture.  Each time I sat down to read, I felt like Alexander was next to me narrating the story, reading excerpts of the original, and then pausing to give me the necessary background and side stories.  Though I’ve read chunks of The Iliad using Fitzgerald’s translation, and I’ve read a lengthy kids’ version, and I’ve seen the movie Troy, Alexander’s study of The Iliad pulled everything together, smoothly weaving text excerpts (the Lattimore translation) and her own interpretations and insights into one flowing narrative.  At times, she also brings quotes from contemporary war veterans along with experts who treat war veterans, showing just how closely the themes of Homer’s story connect to today’s soldiers and today’s wars, starting with the opening scene which shows Achilles’ frustration toward Agamemnon and his failed leadership of the Greek army.

I couldn’t help but think of today’s suicide bombers as Alexander discusses the age-old theme of glory, honor, and fame trumping life: this occurs in so much heroic poetry, but as she says, “Achilles hijacks the Iliad” as he speaks of life being more precious than glory. And I imagine that’s how most soldiers really feel about war.

I loved this book. I loved delving into the lives of Hektor and Andromache, Priam and Hecuba, the wimpy Paris and Helen, Achilles, his mom Thetis, his best buddy, Patroclos, and the Gods whose childish power struggles and jealousies lead them to interfere in all matters that they should walk away from.  This is history, legend, literature, archeology, mystery, action thriller, psychology, and social commentary all in one.

What surprised me most, and what exposed my lack of expertise on this text, is that Achilles’ death is not part of the story.  Nor is the end of the war, the Trojan horse, or the beginning of the war and the story of Helen.  Having only read parts of the original text at various times throughout school, I just assumed those details were actually in The Iliad, but apparently those stories come to us from other stories and myths, not Homer’s text. My knowledge of The Odyssey far exceeds that of The Iliad, but I felt like this book brought me up to speed—keeping in mind this is Alexander’s interpretation, and not necessarily that of other scholars.  Not being a classics scholar myself, I’m not sure she offers new or different ideas, or that her ideas are appropriately supported, so I’ll take it for what it is: a close look at The Iliad, with a specific message that war and glory do not necessarily belong together.

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