Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The War That Killed Achilles

In college I had the great fortune of translating the Iliad from Greek to English. This was in a class of 3 students with a remarkable professor, and it was the top literary experience of my college years. I adore the story, the epic, the context and the characters.

Just this morning I finished reading Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles, a great reading experience complete with a rush back through my brain and my veins of everything I love about the epic. The tragedy of war (as recognised even by the war hero), the futility of "enemies", and most of all the humanity of it all. Achilles, Hektor, Andromache, Patroklos, Priam, even Helen: the range of emotions they endure in the epic and how recognisable they are to any person, in any period of history.

The role of the gods always perplexed me slightly, and Alexander quotes Longinus' On The Sublime: "in recording as he does the wounding of the gods, their quarrels, vengeance, tears, imprisonment, and all their manifold passions Homer has done his best to make the men in the Iliad gods, and the gods men."

But most of all, the closing lines of the book. Remember that the story of the Iliad tells of the war of Troy, in which, listeners would know, Trojans were defeated and their city decimated. The Achaeans, however, did not fare so well afterwards either. Almost all the celebrated heros of the Greek armies meet violent or tragic ends and we know the Mycenaean empire did not survive for long after the end of the war. Bringing all your strongest men away from their lands for 10 years I guess could do that to an ancient empire.

And so, Alexander points out that
War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory. 

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