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Tom Chaney: Slow Years of Wasteful War

Of Writers And Their Books: Slow Years of Wasteful War. Tom reviews Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, a mighty fine yarn, a story we never learn from. The gods of war dazzle us with "that huge body... which will not rot, which will not stop being beautiful." This column first appeared 27 July 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Traipsing Through Georgia

By Tom Chaney

Slow Years of Wasteful War

The Trojan War is over, but the Greeks are having a difficult time working their way back home. Odysseus journeys to the edge of Ocean to provide a sacrificial drink for the shades of the dead and to learn from the seer Tiresias whether or not he will "reach his own father and home in Ithaka again."
The dead surround Odysseus, wanting to know the news. "They have forgotten how hard it is for the living to know things. That the rule is one place at one time.... The truth is he's as ignorant as they were. As they still are."

He speaks to one of the two who are not crowding him -- with Achilles who stands apart with his lover Patroclus -- "who loves Achilles but not so much as he is loved."

Pleased to tell him of the bravery of his son, Neoptolemus, Odysseus explains how Achilles' son "was the first to climb out of the hollow horse: 'All harm came from him. No harm came to him.'"

Yet though Achilles rules in the land of the shades of the dead, he bemoans "'What's that to me? Don't you know that it's sweeter to be alive -- in any shape or form -- than lord of all these shadows?'

"He strides away, leaving Odysseus unblessed."

Thus begins the fine little novel Achilles by Elizabeth Cook [Picador, 2002]. While Odysseus and the rest go on to victory, Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War is trapped in the shades of the underworld, bemoaning his doom.

'Twas not ever thus. Even in the seduction of his mother Thetis, the sea-nymph, by the patient Peleus there is violence as crafty Thetis resorts to becoming fire and water and lion and serpent and finally woman. But six sons Thetis bears. Six sons she drowns in the river Styx. "'Immortality,' she said, 'I'm burning away their mortal parts in the fire of this river.'"

When the seventh is conceived Peleus became an eagle and dreamt of snatching Achilles away from the fatally loving ministrations of his mother. At Achilles birth the loving mother holds him by the left ankle and dips him in the fiery waters. The father snatches up the burning baby and "[f]or weeks, using all the skill that Chiron has given him, he [Peleus] tends the poor burnt flesh of his child. Till Achilles is as mortal as he."

The war with Troy looms. Paris has stolen the beautiful Helen from Menelaeus and taken her back to Troy. Thus Helen becomes the first woman in history to get her gowns from Paris.

Thetis sees war ahead and fears for Achilles. She decides to train him to be a girl in the court of King Lycomedes at Skiros. The king's daughter Deidamia spies out Achilles for what he is and takes her/him as bedmate.

Along comes Odysseus seeking recruits for the Trojan adventure. Suspecting that all is not what it seems in the girls' court, he devises a test of gifts. Amidst the baubles offered is a sword and shield. Of course, Achilles cannot resist the tools of war. He is revealed and it's off to Troy.

For nine years they fight. Hector slays Patroclus, Achilles lover, mistaking him for Achilles. Achilles takes his revenge on Hector. In a great funeral pyre they weep for those they have lost, for those who will loose them, "For all the men gone down in the slow years of this wasteful war."

Paris aims for the vulnerable left heel, and Achilles is slain. Thetis gathers his remains after the funeral pyre. They are then mixed with those of Patrocles -- lovers intertwined for eternity.

Paris is killed. Helen as Paris' Trojan prize is not worth the death of Hector.

And we are left with a final chapter in which the poet Keats contemplates the image on the Grecian urn and dips into Chapman's Homer.

The story of the hopelessness of ten years of war before Troy (not far from modern Iraq); of ten years of wandering to bring Odysseus home must be retold each generation. Yet we do not seem to ever understand war's hollow victories and tragic losses. Ever since Troy boys must have their battles, and old men must perch like gods or vultures safely on the battlements egging them on.

We retell the story without ever learning from it. The gods of war dazzle us with "that huge body... which will not rot, which will not stop being beautiful." But in the futility of telling Ms Cook spins a mighty fine yarn.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-07-28 04:43:26
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