The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story Of Homer's Iliad And The Trojan War - Caroline Alexander There is a section in Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? where the author discusses the difference between “literature” – those works of prose and verse that are read and discussed for generations – and what isn’t – those works that may be well written and engaging but don’t have the power or impact that survives the ages. Two of the authors he chooses to illustrate this are Homer and Stephen King. The distinction, Edmundson writes, is that Homer (and “literature” in general) challenges the reader. He makes the epic genre do things it usually doesn’t, and forces you to ask questions about the assumptions you make about life, morality, religion, war, etc. Stephen King is a good author but ultimately he doesn’t challenge you to move beyond a certain comfortable zone of limited expectations:

King is an entertainment. King is a diversion. But when you try to take him as a guide to life, he won’t work. The circles he draws on the deep are weak and irresolute. And this is so in part because King, for all his supposedly shocking scare tactics, is a sentimental writer. In his universe, the children…are good, right, just, and true…. Just about all adults who are not in some manner childlike are corrupt, depraved, lying, and self-seeking. This can be a pleasant fantasy for young people and childish adults…. But bring this way of seeing the world out into experience and you’ll pretty quickly pay for it. Your relation to large quadrants of experience…will likely be paranoid and fated to fail. (Why Read, pp. 133-34)

I’m reminded of this in Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles, where she argues for a similar conclusion when she attempts to explain why The Iliad is still read and discussed three millennia after its creation. While she doesn’t cite Edmundson (nor King, oddly enough :-), she wants us to see that The Iliad is not a glorification of war and the warrior (as some parts can be interpreted or misconstrued). Neither is it its opposite – an anti-war manifesto (as other parts can be understood). If is, rather, an unflinchingly honest story about why men fight and the price they and their families and comrades pay. It remains a story about Achilles’ rage and the choice he must make – glory and a short, long-remembered life or mediocrity and a long but quickly forgotten life – but the poet demands a deeper exploration of the choice than the typical epic cycle, where there’s rarely even the pretense of a choice and the worth of glorious battle and defeating one’s enemies is taken for granted.

An example: All know why Achilles abandons the war in its final year. Agamemnon, the Greek high king, seizes Briseis, a captured Trojan woman, when his own prize, Chryseis, is ransomed by her father. Achilles stalks off to sulk in his tent, and the Achaeans come near to losing everything as the Trojans take advantage of the Phthian’s absence. The hero abandoning, for a time, the “cause,” is a common trope in ancient literature, but Alexander argues that Homer uses it as an opportunity to raise questions about why we fight and under what conditions must you obey a leader who is manifestly incompetent and wrong.

As an example of the first contention, the author points to Achilles’ reply to the embassy sent to try and convince him to return to the fray. Alexander writes, “Achilles, moreover, not only rejects the Embassy but…goes further, challenging the very premise of the heroic way of life” (p. 87):

I hate his gifts. I hold him light as a strip of a splinter….

…For not
worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaeans….

Of possessions
cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and the tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier. For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly. And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back home again, since no longer shall you find any term set on the sheer city of Ilion, since Zeus of the wide brows has strongly held his own hand over it, and its people are made bold.

Do you go back therefore to the great men of the Achaeans, and take them this message, since such is the privilege of the princes:
that they think out in their minds some other scheme that is better, which might rescue their ships, and the people of the Achaeans who man the hollow ships, since this plan will not work for them which they thought of by reason of my anger. Let Phoinix remain here with us and sleep here, so that tomorrow he may come with us in our ships to the beloved land of our fathers, if he will; but I will never use force to hold him.

So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence in amazement at his words.
(pp. 97-8)

The infamous Thersites articulates the second contention in his confrontation with Agamemnon, who has foolishly decided to test the Achaeans’ resolve by advocating that they go home:

It is not right for you, their leader, to lead in sorrow the sons of the Achaeans. My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaea, let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him. And now he has dishonoured Achilles, a man much better than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her. (p. 34)

A strength of the book is that it made me – once again – reconsider the character of Achilles and appreciate him as a human being far more than ever before. He does find a reason to return to the war – the death of Patroklos – and Alexander suggests a parallel between Achilles’ reaction and that of modern-day soldiers who lose comrades, “[c]ombat trauma undoes character” (p. 169):

So the glorious son of Priam addressed him, speaking in supplication, but heard in turn the voice without pity: Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny than it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend, you die also. (pp. 167-68)

Compare that to a modern soldier’s reflection:

I just went crazy. I pulled him out into the paddy and carved him up with my knife. When I was done with him, he looked like a rag doll that a dog had been playing with…. I lost all my mercy. I felt a drastic change after that…. I couldn’t do enough damage…. For every one that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went [sic] away. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. Get one of them to compensate what they had done to me. I got very hard, cold, merciless. I lost all my mercy. (p. 169)

There is much more to Alexander’s arguments than the few points I’ve raised here, all equally fascinating and equally well presented by the author. E.g., she points out that Homer plays with readers’ expectations by describing visions of marching armies with scenes of life (pp. 39ff). Elsewhere, she argues that Hera’s extortion from Zeus of a promise to let Fate take its course reflects Homer’s recognition of the mutually destructive nature of war – no one can win, all are destroyed (pp. 60ff). Another observation I found interesting was the probable origin of “Achilles”: He was not a hero from the epic tradition but a figure of folktales. A late addition to the cycle that made him someone Homer could use to comment on the war (pp. 83ff).

While classicists and those obsessed with ancient Greek literature may find The War that Killed Achilles thin fare, the general reader will find it a valuable commentary on The Iliad and I would recommend it.