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Thursday, April 7, 2016

“The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War”, by Caroline Alexander

296 pages, Penguin, ISBN-13: 978-0143118268

If you have even just a passing familiarity with the Iliad then Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War is a brilliant exposition of the story, the timeless themes it explores, and the various oral traditions that informed Homer’s written version…if, however, you have never read the Iliad, then I can't recommend this book to you, for without some sense of the original text to anchor you, it really becomes just a dry description of a story that you have never read and, therefore, rather pointless.

Alexander sets forth the view that one of the great ironies of literary history is that the Iliad came to be perceived as a martial epic glorifying war when it was, in Homer’s telling, a description of war as a pointless catastrophe that blighted all it touched, a perception that was shared by ancient poets and historians. It is a view, perhaps, engendered by Alexander’s own times, an era in which the point of war in Vietnam and Iraq is at best elusive and, no matter how often images of heroism and noble sacrifice are evoked, and the physical and emotional cost of war seems evident. But, I think it is safe to say, Alexander would argue that such a view would be perfectly cogent in the particular word in which the Iliad was written (or composed, or recited, or dictated, or whatever), the world of Greek colonists whose ancestors had fled from the Greek homeland in the aftermath of destruction and decline on the heels of the Trojan War. I should think it a mark of the genius of Homer (whomever or whatever you conceive “Homer” to have been) that the Iliad as a work of art can speak simultaneously as a heroic epic and as a lament of the futility of epic heroism.

But this more than a kind of glorified Cliff Notes as Alexander walks us, chapter by chapter, through the basic story of the Iliad, explaining as she does so the nexus of the god/mortals connections and the context of the struggle within the Greek bronze age, all in a clear, lucid style. If you are a Greek scholar you should probably stick to more rigorous textbook-style tomes, but for those of us just interested in the Classics, and teaching ourselves while reading alone, Alexander has a style that seemed to be some sort of process where I felt I was remembering the Iliad in a cozy moment while I was actually reading her book.

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