Caroline Alexander: “The War That Killed Achilles”

The War That Killed Achilles  The War That Killed Achilles

Non-fiction
Full Title: The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War
Pages: 320
First Published: 2009

Synopsis: A groundbreaking reading of the Iliad that restores Homer’s vision of the tragedy of war, by the bestselling author of The Bounty.

Few warriors, in life or literature, have challenged their commanding officer and the rationale of the war they fought as fiercely as did Homer’s hero Achilles. Today, the Iliad is celebrated as one of the greatest works in literature, the epic of all epics; many have forgotten that the subject of this ancient poem was war – not merely the poetical romance of the war at Troy, but war, in all its enduring devastation.

Using the legend of the Trojan War, the Iliad addresses the central questions defining the war experience of every age: Is a warrior ever justified in standing up against his commander? Must he sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause? Giving his life for his country, does a man betray his family? How is a catastrophic war ever allowed to start – and why, if all parties wish it over, can it not be ended?

As she did with The Endurance and The Bounty, Caroline Alexander lets us see why a familiar story has had such an impact on us for centuries, revealing what Homer really meant. Written with the authority of a scholar and the vigor of a bestselling narrative historian, The War That Killed Achilles is a superb and utterly timely presentation of one of the timeless stories of our civilization.

My Thoughts: (What follows is a review I wrote in June 2010 and edited in August 2014.)

So my review of this book can be summed up the same way almost all of my Trojan War-related reviews can be summed up: this book is FASCINATING. Now, for all I know it could be filled with information that everyone else already knows; I heart the Trojan War but it’s only recently that I’ve started reading academic works about it, as opposed to novels. But oh man this book was amazing and if I didn’t have such a huge pile of library books to get through I would totally have started rereading it already.

The subtitle of this book is The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, which I don’t think fits it. This book isn’t about finding out the historical truth behind the Iliad; rather, it’s about breaking down the idea that the poem glorifies war. Alexander makes the case that the poem has a very bleak view of war, telling as it does the story of a man who “will die in a war that holds no meaning for him whatsoever.” (It’s kind of funny to me that she felt this was something that needed to be argued – although maybe it is, I don’t know – when one of the very first impressions left on me by the Trojan War story was that war leaves everyone involved with an unhappy ending.) Along the way, she also takes down other impressions people have about the Iliad – like, for example, the idea that Achilles was a wuss for “sulking in his tent.”

I really enjoyed the parts of the book where Alexander gathered together little pieces of information that are scattered throughout the Iliad and attempted to make a clearer story out of them. I’d never seen so much attention paid to Peleus before, but Alexander creates a really interesting character profile for him that she then uses to highlight some of the repeating themes in the poem. Seriously, I feel like I say this all the time, but all of the different characters and plotlines and levels and themes in this poem, the way it was touched by so many different poets and yet managed to emerged as a cohesive whole that just works, the way I can read article after article and book about book about it and always see something new, it just blows my mind.

I was also pretty excited to see that I’m not the only person who gets freaked out by Patroclus’ death scene. Seriously! Everyone focuses on the scene where Zeus gets bored with watching Troy and looks away, but to me that scene is not even a quarter as scary as the death of Patroclus, who is in the thick of battle when Apollo lands on the plain, unseen, and just starts ripping off his armour, opening him up to attacks. Says Alexander:

Of the many deaths the Iliad records, no other resembles that of Patroklos. Nowhere is the pitiful vulnerability of a mortal so exploited as it is by the savage malevolence of Apollo’s blow and the hounding of the wounded man as he tries to shun death among his companions.

Ugh, exactly. That scene is terrifying.

I also really liked this bit, when Alexander is talking about how Achilles is willing to call a truce so that the Trojans can mourn Hector properly:

Priam and Achilles meet in the very twilight of their lives. Their extinction is certain and there will be no reward for behaving well, and yet, in the face of implacable fate and an indifferent universe, they mutually assert the highest ideals of their humanity.

So in conclusion: this book was awesome and pointed out a ton of stuff I’d never noticed before, and I definitely want to reread it and then seek out all her sources and read them too, and now if you’ll excuse me I think that last quote has left me with a bit of dust in my eye.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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