Reading Homer in the original Greek is difficult. Even reading it in translation is hard (as my students keep reminding me). The War that Killed Achilles offers immediate and engaging access to the Iliad, and must be welcomed for that reason alone. In her preface, Caroline Alexander states that the book "is not about many of the things that have occupied scholarship ... it is about what the Iliad is about".
This is ambitious: no book can entirely capture what the Iliad is about - except, perhaps, the Iliad itself (although even the "original" cannot entirely account for its exalted place in literary history). More interesting than Alexander's grand claim is her failure to advertise her scholarly credentials. Despite her protestations, she engages closely and intelligently with the work of many Homeric scholars. She is in a good position to do so: with a PhD in Classics from Columbia University, she knows what to read and whom to ask for advice. Richard Janko, one of the most distinguished Homerists of our time, has commented on the typescript before publication.
The structure of the book is simple: Alexander offers an intelligent summary of the Iliad, interspersed with digressions on key topics (the archaeology of Troy, the Homeric gods, the similes, and so on). She effectively educates the reader on the go: by the end of the book, she can thus abandon her paraphrase and offer a straightforward line-by-line translation of Iliad 22. By then, her reader has acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with it. A final chapter sums up her overall interpretation, and prompts her to ask: "What if Achilles had honoured his own first impulse, returned home, and grown old?" She suggests that it would have been much better if he had done so, since the war "held no meaning for him whatsoever".
On the whole, Alexander offers a judicious and reliable guide to current interpretations of Homer, although no reader will agree with all her claims. (I struggled with her overconfident etymologies, for example.) The larger problem concerns her voice: despite the generous quotations, she takes the place of Homer as the narrator of the Trojan War, and substitutes her own perspective for his. Her expository style is matched by a certain blandness, and a propensity for the literary cliche. At the beginning of chapter one, she declares that the Iliad "is the epic of epics, the most celebrated and enduring of all war stories ever told". It seems that very few books on Homer refrain from such exalted statements; but the Iliad itself offers no claims of this kind. Homer plunges us in medias res - "in the middle of things", as Horace observed. The best Homeric imitators do the same. This is, for example, how Christopher Logue starts his poem War Music: "Picture the east Aegean sea by night,/And on a beach aslant its shimmering/Upwards of 50,000 men/Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet."
This simile - the Achaeans like spoons - captures exactly the spirit of Homeric poetry. The Iliad offers a dazzling range of comparisons drawn from domestic life, natural landscapes, machinery, animal husbandry, lions, portents, the weather, exotic artefacts, etc. They give the impression that Homer drew from a very vast experience of life.
Alexander's own comparisons are, by contrast, rather narrow. She focuses on the two world wars and, especially, Vietnam. Achilles is like Muhammad Ali refusing to fight: "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong ... No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." Her comparisons are often apt, but their narrow range becomes a problem in itself - because it suggests too easy a parallel between Americans of her generation and the Achaeans who fought at Troy. Alexander herself goes as far as saying that the experience of war remains fundamentally unchanged. But for those drafted to fight in Vietnam, the possibility of civil disobedience was real. For Achilles, it was no possibility at all. For all that he quarrelled with Agamemnon, ruler of men, and declared his intention to abandon the war, we all know that he was destined to die young at Troy.
In the Iliad, Achilles' decision to sail home is not "an option", as Alexander would have it, but rather a sign of self-delusion. She argues, on the basis of the Iliad, that war is terrible, and infers that it is best avoided. This is not Homer's argument. In the Iliad, pacifism is as far-fetched as immortality. War and death define the human condition. They are bad, but they are also inescapable.
The War that Killed Achilles
By Caroline Alexander
Faber and Faber, 320pp, £20.00
Published 18 February 2010