The war that killed Achilles (Review)

The war that killed Achilles (Review)

So, in a show of fair advertising, I’ll point out that this book’s sub-title, The True Story of the Iliad, is not entirely truthful. That’s why I bought this book when I found it at Slightly Foxed in London. But this isn’t about the war behind the Iliad. It’s about the Iliad. It’s nothing more than a complete breakdown of the elements of the epic, how they fit into the overall stream of storytelling, and how these elements relate to us in our modern world. There is nothing about the actual Trojan War except a map in the front and a picture of what is, presumably, the excavation of Troy on the cover.

So it’s not about history. It’s about literature.

But it’s really quite good.

Caroline Alexander shows that she understands the Iliad, the whole deal with Achilles and Hector and Paris and Helen, far better than I. She breaks down each of the elements, moving step-by-step through the tale. In that, it was very interesting. There are shades of Achilles I never considered, and of Hector. She looks at the command and control failures that lead to Achilles’ sit-down strike, rates his leadership vs. Agamemnon’s, and looks at the bloodbath and the soldiers’ reactions to it (as well as the reaction of ancient readers).

She does this in a less-that-dusty-library way, with funny insights and clever chapter headings (for example, the one that details Patroklos’ death is titled “Man down”.) When two heroes get in an insulting match, Ms. Alexander notes that they are “playing the dozens”. No, this is not a dry rehash of the dusty classic – it is a fresh new look at one of the early blockbusters.

So I enjoyed it. It was short and sweet, and will take a place on my history shelf. And it will remain close at hand when I re-read the Iliad sometime next year.