Review: The War that Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander

What was I reading recentlyish that talked about the Dark Ages being defined by the lack of Homer and Ovid? Was it The Secret History? Or The Fall of Rome maybe? Probably it was Tom Stoppard, Arcadia or The Invention of Love. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Stoppard would say. Anyway, whatever character it was, they said something about how the Dark Ages were Dark because we didn’t have the classics around, in all their universal brilliance, to explain us to ourselves. When the West got them back again (thanks, Arabia!), it was like being reborn, a Renaissance.

Caroline Alexander, author of The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, seems to be of this mind. As I understand it, the book began as a series of lectures on the Iliad, which she eventually expanded and wrote down in bookish form, and lo, they are now a book. I kind of like it that a book about one of the world’s most utterly magnificent oral traditions, the Iliad, started out as lectures. That seems fitting.

The book is mainly an explication of what’s going on throughout the Iliad, from start to finish, with many admiring asides and fun trivia facts. Alexander goes through the poem and explores why people are doing the things they are doing, and what it says about them, and what crafty tricks of the trade Homer is using to make his poem the enduring masterpiece of genius that it is. She writes about the boring bits and why Homer would have included them and what audiences of the time would have thought;and she talks about the various strands of mythic and poetic tradition and when scholars think they got added into the Iliad. It was so great. I kept stopping reading it and reading other books instead, just to make it last longer.

It has occurred to me that I need to add a new category to my categories of talking about books. Sometimes I read a book, and I have a response of overwhelming joy, but the joy is coming from a place in my heart that is unrelated to my critical faculties. Every time this happens, I think that if you read the book I’m talking about, and you hate it, you won’t know that I know that my response has been colored by, for instance, my passionate love of the classics and desire to snuddle Homer and Ovid and Virgil. And then you’ll go away and think, That Jenny, she thinks books are fantastic that we know are only sort of okay. What an idiot. Accordingly I have added a new category and I have called it “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts”. Hereafter, if you see that I have put a post in this category, you will know that my ability to be critical of a certain book has been overthrown by desperate, protective love for some aspect of it. Then you won’t think I have bad taste ever again.

Glad I’ve solved that problem.

You know the one problem with this book, which is otherwise really cool? Caroline Alexander is using Lattimore’s translation. What? Why would you? When Fagles is around, being obviously better and only using enjambment when it’s called for and not every single damn line. FAGLES. FAGLES. FAGLES. I have never actually read Fagles’s Iliad but I’ve read his Odyssey, and I know the man translates Greek like a champion. Lattimore? I think not.

By the way, here is another bit of Old School that I liked a lot and sort of pertains to this because it’s about classical poetry:

Augustus Caesar had sent our Latin master’s beloved Ovid into exile…Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.


35 thoughts on “Review: The War that Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander

  1. Thinking: “That Jenny, she gets it. Sometimes a person just loves a book when the intellectual reasons to do so are frankly lacking.”

    Adding this one to my wish list!

  2. LOL I need a Sparkly Snuggle Hearts category too. I want to read this now, since as you know I share your looooove for the Ancient Classics. But what’s up with her going with Lattimore?! I bet she’s all snobby because Fagles is popular with ‘The Masses’ and she’s an academic. lol

    • She said Lattimore was the translation she used as a student. I can understand, I guess — as my Sparkly Snuggle Hearts category attests, sometimes you cling to inferior things for sentimental reasons. :p

  3. This sounds monumentally cool. I never knew a thing about the ancients until I had a boy child. Then we listened to The Ilyad and the Odyssey on tape together (him idly flicking through a comic, me weeping copiously into tissues as Hector is dishonored, etc). Now it would be great to know more. Definitely marking this book down as one to find. Although I did laugh that the author’s name is Alexander – made for a little time shifting confusion as I pictured Alexander the Great making witty annotations. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • When I checked the book out, I kept thinking how cool it would be to have Alexander as a surname. Jenny Alexander. I like it. :p

      I’m surprised you never had to read Homer in school! Not even excerpts? We read the whole Iliad in my freshman year Western Civilization class, but I’d read bits of it in various English classes all through school.

  4. I think the last translation I read was Lattimore’s…and it has been a few years since I read it. I’ve always found that if I genuinely loved a work, it was sometimes difficult to accommodate a new translation.

    This sounds like such an enjoyable work, and I like the idea that it developed from lectures. I can imagine her preparing her lectures and trying to share her joy in her favorite passages. This is what I enjoy most with some literary critics (and certainly not all), this willingness to share not just information, but personal pleasure.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jenny!

    • Mmm, but maybe try Fagles. He translates so beautifully and fluidly. I love him. I love him and he was not my first Homer translation.

      Major yes to the personal pleasure thing. I always enjoy a nonfiction book better when it’s clear the author is thrilled by his or her topic.

  5. I love โ€œSparkly Snuggle Heartsโ€ and I am going to be watching out for it avidly. I think this book might just go over my head slightly, but I am interested in reading The Iliad and The Odyssey this year, hopefully! And just to let you know, it was your review that inspired me to do so!

    • I cannot wait for you to read them! I am convinced that you will love them. Do you know which one you’re starting with? Usually I insist people read things in the right order, but in this case, it doesn’t really matter.

  6. Best new category ever! I love it! Sometimes the books bloggers love for reasons that might cloud their critical eye are my favorite ones to read about.

    I’m just finishing up reading The Odyssey and have considered tackling The Iliad, if not next, then soon. The War that Killed Achilles sounds really interesting!

    • Mine too! Then if I have the same prejudices I know I’m in for a lovely treat. Are you loving the Odyssey? In my opinion it is slightly better than the Iliad, but part of that is just that Achilles annoys me.

  7. Oh, Jenny. When I read about a new category called “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts,” I am glad that I gave birth to you.

    PS – you don’t have to post this comment!

  8. Sparkly Snuggle Hearts – love it!

    I need to read more classics. It’s not that I don’t love them; I just don’t read much of them and thus lack any notion of where to start. Thanks to you, I think I will start here.

    • Yes, start here! Homer has a very well-deserved reputation for being genius. Then if it turns out you like epic poetry (not everyone does), you can try the Aeneid as well.

  9. This sounds SO COOL. Do you know if there is a book like this that goes with The Odyssey, because I’m reading that now and would love to read something like this for it. The book makes sense as a story, but I’m not sure if it makes sense as a piece of history from that time, which it seems like a book like this one would be helpful for.

    • I would love it if there were a book like this that went with the Odyssey, but I don’t know that there is. If you discover one, let me know. I would be all over that. I love the Odyssey even better than the Iliad.

  10. Okay. Just gotta say it: Lattimore Lattimore Lattimore!

    I think it’s just because it’s what I read first. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Now, how about the Aeneid?! Are you a Fitzgerald or perhaps a Lombardo or are you more classic and go for the Dryden?? ;p

    • Oh, dear. It is so sad that such a lovely girl can be so wrong. :p

      With the Aeneid, I had the C. Day Lewis translation (don’t judge), and that was my crib all through Latin class. So I have a soft spot for him. However, I am going to read Fagles soon and will probably like that much better.

    • Do! They truly deserve their reputation. And I can’t recommend Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey strongly enough (probably the Iliad too but I haven’t read that one yet).

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