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 piece of work, something entirely new and fully equal to its prestigious antecedents.
Achilles is born of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, and Thetis, a sea nymph. His mother has drowned all of her previous offspring in the burning waters of the Styx; I’m burning away their mortal parts in the fire of this river, she tells Peleus. But when she dips the bawling Achilles into the sacred stream, Peleus comes running and wrenches the child from her grasp. Only a portion of the baby is unburned, his heel, and Peleus tends him Till Achilles is as mortal as he.
Grown to adulthood, Achilles is wanted for the Trojan War. But his mother now fears for him and sequesters him among the many daughters of King Lycomedes at Skiros. Dressed as a young woman, Achilles’ identity is hidden. The wily Odysseus has his suspicions, however, and when he visits the palace he devises a scheme to learn the truth. He unpacks a gift chest for the women, filled with bracelets, necklaces, rings, lengths of fine fabric, delicate sandals, a little knife, mirrors of polished bronze and among them, a shield; embroidered girdles. A spear. Unable to resist the weapons, Achilles is exposed.
On the plains of Troy, Achilles faces Hector. They look at each other and, just for a moment, time stops, eyes blazing into eyes as each takes in the form and splendour of the other and thinks It’s him. Then Achilles raises the great ash spear and Hector begins to run and the race, which both always knew would one day begin, begins. Thrice they fly around the city walls, but Achilles is the swifter and brings his enemy to bay. We meet as animals, he says. What’s left of you will go to the dogs.
For 11 days Achilles drags the body of Hector behind his chariot, nose bumping down, through the dust. But this the gods will not countenance forever, and Priam, Hector’s father, is at last allowed to retrieve the body. The meeting of the old man and the vengeful warrior is a heart-rending scene, throwing into relief war’s futility and despair. The two men hold each other and weep: for those they have lost, for those who will lose them, for all the men gone down in the slow years of this wasteful war. Achilles too eventually falls, struck by an arrow at the very spot where his mother clasped his heel.
At his funeral pyre, Thetis is silhouetted against the flames. Some see the black gash of her mouth but the sound of her screams is swallowed by the roar of the flames; the crackings and burstings of wood and flesh and bones. Achilles is gone but the war goes hideously on. Troy is sacked, men die, women are enslaved.
Cook closes her work by imagining the poet John Keats in Rome. He witnesses a human dissection, wanders the city streets, studies his hand, twists his hair in his fingers, all the while ruminating on Achilles. His life. His death. And Keats’ own contributions to a deeper appreciation of the ancients, On Looking Into Chapman’s Homer and Ode to a Grecian Urn, germinate in his mind.
Short is my date, Homer has Achilles say, but deathless my renown. Elizabeth Cook’s splendid little volume is only the latest confirmation of those boastful words.