Elizabeth Cook: “Achilles”


Listen. Achilles never wanted to die.
Don’t think because Patroclus is dead he wants to die.

Pages: 107
First Published: 2001

Synopsis: Born of god and king and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks’ greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters—among them Hector, Helen, Penthiseleia the Amazon Queen, and the centaur Chiron; and finally John Keats, whose writings form the basis of a meditation on the nature of identity and shared experience. Achilles is an affirmation of the story’s enduring power to reach across centuries and cultures to the core of our imagination.

This armour fits three men and no one else:
Achilles, for whom it was made; Patroclus (who nevertheless cannot lift the great ash spear that goes with it) and … who else? What did you say?

My Thoughts: I enjoyed this book quite a bit when I read it for the first time in 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much the second time around. This could be because since then I have started this blog and thus started reading Trojan War-related works with a slightly more critical eye; it could also be because since then I have read The Song of Achilles, which covers roughly the same story but produced a much stronger emotional response from me. Achilles is a bit of an odd book; more a long prose poem than a short novel, and not so much about Achilles as the title would have you believe. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the last Achilles-focused chapter ends on page 70; following that is a chapter about Helen, a chapter about Chiron, and a chapter about … John Keats?? Allow me to devolve into point form and come back to that particular point later.

· I call Achilles a prose poem because of the structure of the book, but also because of the poetic style of the writing. I will confess that I’m not much for poetry and occasionally I find this kind of style grating, so most of my favourite passages are the less poetic ones. However, I did enjoy the connections that Cook’s more metaphoric language allowed her to make, and I also found it interesting when she broke away from conventional narrative writing (as in the short passage quoted above), so while I am glad I don’t have to read it all the time, I can’t say I dislike Cook’s style.

· It seems Cook expects her readers to already have a fairly solid knowledge of the Trojan War. While certain characters get a proper introduction, others do not, even in cases where a knowledge of their background is necessary to understand their actions. The book does include a Glossary of Classical Names, but it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone enjoying having to flip to it, especially when it sometimes only repeats the information already provided by the text. For example, the entry for Antielus reads: A Greek; one of those in the wooden horse. His only scene shows him inside the horse, so this is not exactly a surprise. Cook also occasionally mentions mythology that she doesn’t explain; for example, in describing Penthiseleia: Two breasts – the rumours aren’t true … This is a reference to the idea that the Amazons cut off their right breasts to allow their fighting arms a wider range of motion. Maybe this idea is better-known than I think it is, but either way it’s the sort of thing that Cook lets pass without explanation. As a result of all this, I find it difficult to recommend this book to people who don’t already know the story fairly well.

· Speaking of Penthiseleia (which I’m going to spell as Cook does for simplicity’s sake). I decided not to talk about her in my post on Olympos because in that book she was just one more example of the author treating his female characters terribly. But now please allow me to state for the record that I find the whole Achilles-falling-in-love-with-Penthiseleia-as-he-kills-her (or after-he’s-killed-her) thing really disturbing in a way that is not at all pleasant. I have no interest in reading a scene where a man admires a woman’s beauty as he takes her life and I really hope I don’t have to explain why. I know it’s a part of the mythology, and I think I could accept it if it were presented as evidence of how far gone Achilles is – if it’s told as part of the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character – but I have yet to see it presented as such. So it does affect my opinion of this book that this scene is included but not treated as the completely messed up situation that it is.

(Of course, there is always the question of how much should an author change a myth in order to suit current ideas. I am usually very interested in discussing this topic, but the story of Achilles and Penthiseleia creeps me out so bad that in this case I don’t think I can.)

· Achilles fights the river Scamander in this book, which I mention just because this might be the only novel I’ve read where it happens. I mean, the scene is fine and all, but mainly I just love that it exists.

· This might be a spoiler so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: The fall of Troy is told mostly from Helen’s point of view, and interspersed with scenes from Theseus’s visit to Sparta. In this way, two major traumas from Helen’s life are told to us simultaneously. Cook’s language is poetic, but here it is also quite explicit, and uses unsettling metaphors to tie the two events together. While the nature of the events don’t exactly make for a pleasant read, I was really impressed by the way Cook connected them, and used them to portray Helen in a new light. This time around, this was my favourite section of the book.

· So the last chapter is about the poet John Keats, and I will confess right now that I don’t understand why. This chapter, which comes complete with quotes from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and Keats’ own poetry, discusses the act of reading and what it is that connects us to the characters we read about. The ideas are interesting enough but the jump from Chiron’s chapter to Keats’ is such a jarring transition and I don’t know why Cook didn’t present these ideas through someone a little closer to Achilles. Does anyone want to read a book where the last chapter introduces an entirely new cast of characters? Maybe I expect this book to act more like a novel than Cook meant it to, or maybe my almost non-existent knowledge of Keats is preventing me from seeing an obvious reason for his inclusion, but as it is it’s difficult for me to see this chapter as anything other than an unrelated and disappointing end to the book.

· All in all, I’m not sure whether I recommend this book or not; the aspects I like are pretty evenly balanced out by the aspects I don’t like. I suppose that if it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, you should give it a try.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Always, throughout his life, bright faces moving away, disappearing behind curtains: his mother taken back in a curtain of water, Iphigeneia wrapped in flames, Patroclus’ face as it speaks to him these nights, folded in darkness. When Polyxena’s form is swallowed by the curtain at the entrance to the temple, he must go after. Layer on layer are here. Following this girl he follows them all – his mother, Iphigeneia, Penthiseleia, Patroclus – yes, and Hector too. He will pursue them all to the vanishing point but he must not lose sight of her.

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