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.