Historical retelling is a commentary on war

By Michael Kenney
October 26, 2009

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The first word in Homer’s “Iliad’’ is the Greek menis, “wrath,’’ or as Robert Fagles has it in his unsparingly blunt 1990 translation: “Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls.’’

It is those kinds of images of wrath and rage, and of the horrors of war, that propel Caroline Alexander’s penetrating study of the “Iliad’’ in “The War That Killed Achilles.’’

It is not merely a retelling with contemporary references, but essentially a launching pad for a commentary on war. As Alexander puts it: “this book is about what the ‘Iliad’ says of war.’’

Alexander, a British writer who now lives on a farm in New Hampshire, has previously written stirring narratives of heroic survival, of the Bounty’s crew following the mutiny, and of the Endurance’s crew stranded in the Antarctic.

Here, she is dealing with an event that can have no outcome other than a doomed battlefield encounter between rival heroes, the Trojan Hektor and the Greek Achilles.

Alexander gives enough of the background for the reader who may have forgotten most everything but the abduction of Helen and deception of the Trojan horse - events that occur before and after those recounted in the “Iliad.’’ In fact the death of Achilles occurs after the “Iliad,’’ which deals with just a few weeks near the end of the decade-long war.

Homer’s war, writes Alexander, is one of unsavory spectacle. There are graphic descriptions of wounding and killing that “suffice to evoke convincingly the battlefield.’’

“Again and again, relentlessly,’’ she writes, the “Iliad’’ “hammers this fact: The death of any warrior is tragic and full of horror.’’

There is frequent use of the language and exhortations of war, such as “scorched earth’’ and “leave no man behind,’’ phrases of the sort that also appear in several chapter titles such as “Man Down’’ and “Full Metal Jacket’’ (for the chapter describing the forging of Achilles’s body armor, with a reference to the ceramic-plated body armor currently used in Iraq and Afghanistan).

All that finds contrast in the images of peace on Achilles’s armor - wheat fields and a vineyard, cattle and a farmyard.

Alexander’s technique throughout is to use Homer’s account, often just for a line or two to describe a detail, or to convey one of the Homeric epithets. For this purpose, she uses the classic translation of Richmond Lattimore which she notes that she first read at 14, starting her on an earlier career as a classics scholar.

But, reflecting her own skills, she also provides her own translation of an entire chapter, the central one that recounts the battlefield duel between Achilles and Hektor.

It is a real bonus for the reader, comparing favorably with those of Lattimore and Fagles and perhaps hinting that a complete translation is in the works. Here is Alexander at the height of the action:

“Relentlessly, swift Achilles kept driving Hektor panicked before him,/ as when a dog in the mountains pursues a deer’s fawn/ that he has started from its bed through glens and dells,/ and though, cowering in fright, it eludes him beneath a thicket,/ the dog runs on, tracking it steadily. Until it finds it -/ so Hektor could not elude Achilles of the swift feet.’’

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War By Caroline Alexander

Viking, 296 pp., $26.95

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