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.

CLASSICS. I LOVE THEM SO HARD.

Fagles’s Odyssey: Stories I know in the second quarter

Books seven through twelve of the Odyssey contain a lot of the stories I remember from my Latin II class: The Cyclops, the cattle of the sun, the Lotus-eaters, Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus is washed up on the shores of Phaeacia and comes to the court of King Alcinous, who welcomes him warmly (his wife Arete slightly less warmly, as she suspects him of deception) and offers him transport back to Ithaca. As Alcinous offers Odysseus hospitality in his hall, he notices that Odysseus weeps when he hears the bard sing of Troy, and he asks him to tell them all the things that have befallen him. Odysseus agreeably tells him the woeful story of all the misery he has suffered since the fall of Troy.

For some reason I had it in my head that Odysseus had been criticized for not caring about losing his comrades. I don’t know why I thought this! It seems to me he cares every time. He’s cautious about sending his people into danger; when useless Eurylochus refuses to go back to Circe’s lair because he’s too chicken, Odysseus lets him stay by the ship (faithful Achates would never have pulled that kind of crap). After meeting a companion of his in the underworld, he promises to go back to Circe’s island to give his friend a proper burial. Each time he loses a comrade or a ship, he speaks of grieving for them, and he weeps when he remembers all the people he has lost in and since the Trojan War. Poor dude.

Am I defensive? Perhaps a smidge. My sublessor, whose book this is, has written lots of uncomplimentary notes in the margins about Odysseus: Full of himself; HUBRIS; I like these “heroes” less and less; I’ll bet he loves the sound of his own voice. I do not appreciate these little asides. Odysseus is not full of himself – or, well, okay, he is a little bit, but with good reason! – and if he does have a tiny little hubrissy fit after he gets away from Polyphemus, I think that’s perfectly fair! The dude did just eat two of his crew members, and if Odysseus hadn’t outwitted him, he’d have eaten the rest of them too.

Oh, check it out, also. When Odysseus has gotten Polyphemus drunk and told him that his name is “Nobody”, he stabs out his eye with a burning piece of wood. Polyphemus starts hollering, and his friends come to see what’s going on.

“What, Polyphemus, what in the world’s the trouble?
Roaring out in the godsent night to rob us of our sleep.
Surely no one’s rustling your flocks against your will–
surely no one’s trying to kill you now by fraud or force!” [shout the other Cyclopses]

Nobody, friends,”–Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave–
“Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!”

“If you’re alone,” his friends boomed back at once,
“and nobody’s trying to overpower you now–look,
it must be a plague sent here by mighty Zeus
and there’s no escape from that.
You’d better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon.”

FUN FACT: Odysseus gives his name as ou tis, not anybody, and this is the name Polyphemus uses to shout to his friends. In their response, however, they use the word me tis, no one, which sounds the same as metis, cunning. I mean, well-played Homer, eh? Odysseus’s cunning is overpowering Polyphemus! Sadly this delightful play on words is untranslatable. But I am glad that Fagles mentions it in a note.

The scene where Odysseus visits the Underworld is excellent. For one thing, Tiresias (and others) drinking the blood of the sacrificed animals before they can talk to Odysseus is a creepy image. For another, I always like it when people get to go to the Underworld and still come out alive – Hercules, Orpheus (sad!), Aeneas. Now my undying favorite is Aeneas’s visit, for reasons that I will reveal to you when I inevitably read Fagles’s Aeneid, but Odysseus has a pretty good trip there too. He runs into his mother, and cries to hear of how unhappy his family is in his absence. In a particularly striking moment, he also sees Achilles, who you will recall was willing to die young as long as his name could be remembered. In the Underworld he’s singing a different tune:

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

I don’t remember this scene at all, but it casts a rather sad light over everything Achilles was striving for in the Iliad. You have to think that Milton had this in mind when he has his Satan say it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not according to Achilles, dude. I’d feel sorry for him if he hadn’t killed Hector and then been a complete tool about it.

Odysseus still can’t get home:

but mine
lies low and away, the farthest out to sea,
rearing into the western dusk
while the others face the east and breaking day.
Mine is a rugged land, good for raising sons–
and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth
than a man’s own native country.

In case I haven’t convinced you yet about Fagles:

Go forth once more, you must…
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings that make ships fly.

It’s sexy, no?

Fagles’s Odyssey: Divided loyalties in the first quarter

Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey is so great it hurts my brain. Granted, I am a sucker for epic poetry. I took eight years of Latin when I was in school, and I never loved anything we translated like I loved the Aeneid. It is epic. Plus I love the Greek and Roman gods. So I am reading the Odyssey right now, in the Fagles translation, which I have to say appears to be the best translation in all the land. Fagles. (Not Lattimore, Capt. Hammer). Check this out:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove–
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.

“Man of twists and turns” – Fagles, you sexy bastard.

My only problem is that I took Latin for eight years, Latin I took, not Greek. My visceral reactions are not perhaps along the exact lines that Homer intends. So when Athena says “I will send [Telemachus] off to Sparta and sandy Pylos”, I’m all, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Telemachus, no! Run! Don’t go where she sends you! Menelaus is in Sparta! Menelaus is the bad guy! Run away, run away! You can’t trust Athena! Don’t you remember how she made the snakes come out of her temple and eat up poor Laocoon and his two sons, all because he feared the Greeks et dona ferentes?”

And then Athena is all, “Hi, Telemachus. Here is a helpful sign from the gods. Here are some ideas for you of how to find your father again,” and Menelaus is all, “Hi, Telemachus. You have grown up so handsome. Your father was such a great guy. Can I interest you in some free stuff for your journey?”

I am #teamtrojans and have always been #teamtrojans and I will never be anything other than #teamtrojans. It is hard for me to remember that Homer, as a Greek, and Telemachus, as the son of Odysseus, are going to be #teamgreeks. I wish I could explain to them that, with one major exception either way (Odysseus is great; Paris is terrible), the Trojans are just better. Athena seems to think that we should be sorry that Agamemnon got killed, and okay, fair play to Homer and Fagles, the scene where Menelaus finds out his brother’s dead is rather affecting:

So Proteus said, and his story crushed my heart.
I knelt down in the sand and wept. I’d no desire
to go on living and see the rising light of day.
But once I’d had my fill of tears and writhing there,
the Old Man of the Sea who never lies continued,
“No more now, Menelaus. How long must you weep?
Withering tears, what good can come of tears?
None I know of. Strive instead to return
to your native country – hurry home at once!
Either you’ll find the murderer still alive
or Orestes will have beaten you to the kill.
You’ll be in time to share the funeral feast.”

But TOO BAD. Too bad for you, Menelaus! Too bad for you, Agamemnon! Agamemnon, if you will recall, killed his daughter in order to gain favorable weather conditions to go a-sailing off to plunder Troy, and then he pissed off his best warrior by stealing his girl, and then he put himself completely beyond the pale by taking my girl Cassandra home with him. Where she got killed, more or less in the crossfire, by Agamemnon’s justifiably angry wife. Ugh, I can’t stand Agamemnon.

(This passage was also the point at which I noticed that reading Homer was putting me in that special Greek ‘n’ Roman headspace that bears no relation at all to my normal morality. My sublessor, whose copy of the book I’m reading, wrote in the margin “Beaten you to the kill? What an odd way of working”, and when I read that, I scoffed and sneered and thought about how my sublessor plainly didn’t know how to please the gods, and how Odysseus would kick his sissy ass at an archery contest.)

But I love Odysseus. When Odysseus comes on screen (as it were) (or on an actual screen comme Sean Bean in Troy, and not to be critical, but why wasn’t that whole film about Sean Bean being Odysseus, when he was plainly the best thing about it?), I am suffused with feelings of joy and love. I trace this back to the Latin class I took as a high school freshman, the translations for which were all Hercules stories first semester, and all Odysseus stories second semester. Do you know how tedious it gets reading Hercules stories three days a week for eighteen weeks?

World: Here is an obstacle.
Hercules: I will punch it with my fists.

When we got to the second half of the book I was so relieved to be done with Hercules I embraced Odysseus with my whole heart. And so it is to this day. I know he didn’t have to sleep with Calypso (and there’s Penelope waiting at home), and I know he’s #teamgreeks and is directly responsible for the fall of Troy with all its contingent miseries (Andromache’s kid getting chucked off a mountain, Cassandra being sent home with Agamemnon, etc.), but what can I say? He’s better than Hercules.

(Better than Aeneas too. Don’t tell Virgil I said so.)

Check it out. He’s just washed up from being shipwrecked and tempest-tossed; he’s naked and “all crusted, caked with brine”, and he’s still a silver-tongued devil.

Here I am at your mercy, princess–
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rules the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus — I see her now — just look
at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace…
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances–
such a bloom of beauty. True, but he is the one
more blest than all other men alive, that man
who sways you with gifts and leads you home, his bride!
I have never laid eyes on anyone like you,
neither man nor woman…
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.

I am so taken with Fagles’s translation that it’s got me genuinely wondering if I read it before. I thought I had, but maybe I was thinking of someone else, someone not as good. Like Lattimore. If you have not read Homer, may I suggest you acquire Fagles’s translation and get on that right away?

Meanwhile, are you #teamtrojans or #teamgreeks, and why? I particularly want to know why if you are #teamgreeks, what with the Trojans being better and all.