Tis a season of war. And though we in the West like to think of ourselves as a peaceful people, the reality is that we are heir to a warrior tradition stretching back millennia. It begins with Achilles, tempestuous, passionate and fearsome in battle. Immortalized, perhaps invented, by Homer, Achilles has inspired admiration and envy down the centuries. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad on campaign, and styled himself the new Achilles as he swept across Persia. During the early 19th century, the Romantic Poets praised him as a man of action, loyalty and feeling. And when the British stormed ashore at Gallipoli in 1915, more than one officer, knowing his Homer, keenly felt the resonance of fighting in the same part of the world where Troy’s ruins stand. In a lull before the assault, one of them wrote, Stand in the trench, AchilleFlame capped, and shout for me.

Literature, it seems, isn’t yet done with this hero, as demonstrated by the publication of Achilles (Picador, paper, $11), a graceful prose poem by British scholar and writer Elizabeth Cook. In a mere 107 pages of text, Cook retells Achilles’ story from a medley of sources ranging from Homer to John Keats. The result is an extraordinary …

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