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October 18, 2009

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Achilles' anger and its cosmic overtones

JUST how angry was Achilles, the best of the Achaean warriors at the siege of Troy, whose rage against his commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, sets off the calamitous events described in the "Iliad?" So angry that the Homeric word for his all-consuming wrath - menis, a word that in the "Iliad" is restricted to godlike Achilles and the gods themselves - bears fearful cosmic overtones.

Its most meaningful parallel is in fact no less than the rage of the great goddess Demeter, whose grief at the loss of her daughter, and her subsequent withholding of the gifts of the harvest, once threatened mankind with the divine equivalent of nuclear winter.

As Caroline Alexander argues in "The War That Killed Achilles," her spirited and provocative reading of the world's mightiest epic, the eternally anguished, all too mortal Achilles shares bonds with the divine order that run far deeper than the poet of the "Iliad" openly divulges.

"Often with Achilles," she writes, "the distant thunder of the fate he almost had and the god he almost was rumbles behind his words and actions." In Alexander's account, the fate Achilles "almost had" was not only to be a god, but to dethrone Zeus and rule the heavens in his place, in much the same way that Zeus had overthrown his own father, the titan Kronos.

This was because of Achilles' divine mother, the eerily lugubrious mermaid Thetis, who was destined to bear a son stronger than his father.

When Zeus learned of her power, the father of gods and men dropped his amorous pursuit of Thetis and married her off, much against her will, to the mortal Peleus. "A cosmic crisis was thus averted," Alexander writes, "but the price, to Thetis' eternal sorrow, would be the certain, untimely death of her short-lived son, Achilles."

Thus cheated, and in a cruel universe offering no hope of a meaningful hereafter, Achilles must also choose between a heroic life that's short and glorious, or a long, obscure and oblivious life in his Greek homeland.

The resentments of both mother and son arising from such a disadvantageous switch would explain much of the charged atmosphere of the "Iliad," Alexander suggests; how strange, then, that the poet of our brooding, passionate "Iliad" - perhaps considering the details of this story too like a fairy tale, or perhaps relying on his audience to fill them in for itself °?°?- offers only oblique hints at its occurrence.

The poem discloses that the god Apollo played his lyre at Thetis' wedding, but he is still Achilles' nemesis and fated killer.

Achilles is nominally alive at the end of the epic, but in the most bloodcurdling of many foreshadowings of his death - and in circumstances reminiscent of animal sacrifice - Apollo the destroyer takes a brutal hand in the slaying of Achilles' beloved companion, Patroklos, who, wearing Achilles' armor, is nothing less than a ritual substitute for the son of Peleus.

Amid this elemental hatred, how many readers will notice that slayer and destined victim have so many features in common as to be themselves uncanny doppelgangers?

"The traits that define Apollo - bringer and averter of destruction, healing powers, aloofness and withdrawal, youthful beauty, skill in the lyre. ... These are the traits that also define Achilles."

Such examples of "submerged myth" and other Homeric enigmas touch only a fraction of the strange and terrible beauty churning beneath the epic surface of the "Iliad," a rich sample of which is on display in "The War That Killed Achilles."

Alexander is best known as the author of "The Bounty" and "The Endurance," well-received books about sea voyages that took place long after the Achaeans set out to avenge Helen. But she is also a trained classicist, and "The War That Killed Achilles" suggests a joyful re-embrace of an early love.

In its bones and sinews, the book is a nobly bold, even rousing, venture, a read-through of the "Iliad," from beginning to end, always with a sharp eye to half a century of revealing scholarship, by great Hellenists like Gregory Nagy, Jasper Griffin, M. L. West and many others.


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