Two destinies, Thetis said. You can choose.
Stay in the fight and be known – for ever – as the greatest warrior on earth, and your life will be short as the beat of that wing.
Or – if you can be happy without this name – live long and peacefully, farming Peleus’ land in Phthia alongside Neoptolemus, the son now growing in Deidamia’s womb. Stay, and you will never meet him while you live.
Achilles, it is well known, chooses glory over longevity, as he must: if he didn’t, there would be no story; and therefore no Achilles, and no choice. In her masterful retelling of the myth – a short, intense account of a short, intense life, closer to being a poem than a novel: if not verse, then at least prose with blood pressure – Elizabeth Cook neatly situates this passage a third of the way through the book, in a space between chapters. On the previous page, Achilles has committed himself to Troy. What follows draws out the dramatic potential of the dilemma, despite its predetermined conclusion. The action leaps forward nine years, to the time covered by the Iliad: ‘Agamemnon pulls rank (the only way he pulls anything) and takes Briseis – the girl who was Achilles’ prize. And Achilles remembers that he can choose. He lays off his men and folds his arms.’
Achilles, which is concerned not only with the hero’s life but also with his afterlife – he dies on page 58 – begins, as all good epics should, in medias res. The source for the opening is Book 11 of the Odyssey. Odysseus, ‘stocky and foursquare and stinking with life’, visits the Underworld on Circe’s instructions, to consult Tiresias about how best to get home to Ithaca. Among the shades Odysseus encounters is that of Achilles, who says: ‘Don’t you know that it’s sweeter to be alive – in any shape or form – than lord of all these shadows?’ In Homer he’s less terse: ‘Put me on earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he regrets the choice he made; but more than that, he’s saying that once you’re dead, it doesn’t make any difference. Not that the living will ever really believe it; we still want Achilles. And so we get the story of his life: ‘But first, a quickening.’
Achilles is the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph, and Peleus, the King of Phthia. Zeus has shown unusual restraint in not ravishing Thetis, because of a prophecy that their son would be more powerful than he is. Instead, he encourages Peleus to have a go, whether for vicarious thrills or because Thetis would lose her appeal along with her virginity is unclear. ‘She wakes to the man covering her, darkening her like a tent, coming between her and the light,’ and metamorphoses to throw him off. ‘Her body now one sentient muscle: a heart, an eel, a fish . . . she is fire now. Roped flame.’ She turns to water, and he ‘sprawls across the ground, crushing himself into it. He takes up damp sand in fistfuls and plasters it across his chest.’ She becomes a lion, a snake, finally a cuttlefish – at which point she starts to enjoy it. This has a touch of Monty Python’s Life of Brian about it (‘You mean you were raped?’ Brian asks his mother; ‘Well, at first,’ she replies) but, unpalatable as this mode of ‘seduction’ is to modern sensibility, it’s how it’s done in classical myth, the great model, of course, being the conquests of Zeus himself.
Thetis may accept a mortal husband, but she doesn’t want to have mortal children. ‘Achilles is the seventh. Six times Thetis has taken a wet new infant up by the heels and dunked it, umbilicus trailing,’ in the caustic waters of the Styx ‘where she’d let it go.’ But this time Peleus stops her, ‘wrenches the child from her grasp. Just a little patch of flesh unburnt: the area held between pincers of thumb and forefinger. For weeks, using all the skill that Chiron has given him, he tends the poor burnt flesh of his child. Till Achilles is as mortal as he.’
To preserve him from the coming war with Troy, Thetis disguises her teenage son as a girl and hides him among the women at the Court of King Lycomedes on the island of Skiros. Deidamia, the princess, sees through the disguise and seduces him. Eventually Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax come looking for him. When they can’t find him among the boys in the palace, Odysseus brings gifts for the girls: ‘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.’
Outside: the aching ring of metal on metal and the unmistakable sound of a man’s breath fleeing his body for ever.
Achilles is there, the shield already on one arm, the little knife in the same hand, the spear – ready to fall wherever it is needed – balanced in the other.
‘There you are,’ says Odysseus (who has forfeited the life of one of his men to this end).
‘I didn’t think you could resist a fight. Come with us. There’ll be a better one in Troy.’
At Troy: Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon; Patroclus goes into battle in Achilles’ armour and is killed by Hector; Thetis has Hephaestus make Achilles a new suit of armour; Achilles returns to battle, fights the River Scamander, kills Hector, drags the corpse behind his chariot and finally returns it to Priam. The action of the Iliad is retold in the space of 19 pages. And Cook’s acceleration works, principally because it is a retelling. She compensates for the elisions in her account with a density and depth of allusion that extends as far as the Iliad, passing through every intervening version of the myth.
This idea of continuity is explored in the final part of the book, ‘Relay’; the protagonist is Keats (whose poems Cook has edited). He stands in much the same relation to poetry as Achilles does to heroism. Here, ancient and modern are connected by Cook’s imagery: the bones that Thetis collects from the ashes of Achilles’ funeral pyre and the bones Keats studies in anatomy classes; the Grecian urn in which Thetis deposits the bones; the fact that warrior and poet, who both died young, had auburn hair. Cook quotes from Chapman’s Homer. Keats thinks of ‘a relay. The baton passed from hand to hand’, and
a chain of fire. The beacons proclaiming that Troy has fallen – the news carried from high point to high point, swift almost as thought, till it reaches the heart of Achaea and the remotest islands; till Clytemnestra knows, and Penelope, and Peleus.
If continuity between cell and cell, between my hand now and my hand then, so also between man and man. This hand that clasped your hand that clasped his hand and so on. As if the warmth in my veins were passed back to run in his who lived so long ago.
The Iliad ends with Hector’s burial. Before introducing us to Keats in his anatomy class, Cook takes the story as far as the fall of Troy. One day, Achilles catches sight of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, Troy’s allies. He stalks her, as his father once stalked his mother, and jumps from a chestnut tree onto her horse, ‘exactly and neatly behind her’, putting a knife to her throat. Galloping towards the Amazon camp, they fall together from the horse.
Achilles has taken his knife from her throat. He holds her now to steady her, not to restrain her. He looks at her blazing, furious face and laughs, glad that she exists.
‘My Queen,’ he says, pulling her to him.
The words are nonsense to her; a foreign babble. Though her back still sings with the memory of him pressing her she will not submit.
And so he breaks her neck. ‘He pushes on. Pushes and then, with practised economy, twists. He holds her a little longer. Waiting for the turmoil of the body to quieten.’ The difference between this bungled rape and Peleus’ ‘courtship’ of Thetis or Deidamia’s seduction of Achilles makes a point about the brutalising effect of war on its participants. Achilles was too young when he became a warrior and is incapable of anything apart from killing, even when he loves. By killing Penthesilea, he shows himself, in this one vital respect, to have fallen short of his father as a hero.
The difficulty, amidst all this slaughter, is to hold onto what is distinct – catch the little gust of a dying breath, follow the brightness of one face before it is eaten by dark. Sometimes, in battle, he sees a face, the curve of a cheek, the way the light catches it, and he follows it, makes it his guide to lead him deeper into the mess.
It is a glimpse of the face of one of Priam’s daughters, Polyxena – ‘pale as the moon’ – that lures Achilles into the Temple of Apollo, where he is killed by Paris. Apollo guides the arrow that pierces his heel.
After the funeral, the fall of Troy – which Cook tells mostly from Helen’s point of view. When Yeats wrote, in ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead,’ he was thinking as much of Clytemnestra as of Helen. To draw attention to Helen’s congenital loneliness, Cook dispenses with her sister, whose conspicuous absence only concentrates the sense of Helen’s alienation: ‘Even in the egg she’d felt alone . . . Locked in the hot, albumen-filled dark Helen could hear the chirruping of Castor and Polydeuces on the other side: their contentment, their togetherness. She afloat in her separate compartment.’ Helen is the mother of all sex symbols, a token bestowed by gods and fought over by men. ‘Nothing in her appearance suggests the years that have gone by. Her skin is so soft you would imagine a breath might bruise it, let alone all those things her body has done and had done to it.’ Cook is interested in what it feels like from the inside. She describes in uncomfortable detail the indignities perpetrated on Helen’s body by generations of men. Theseus is the first; she is ten years old:
When Theseus broke in she silently slipped out; back into the shell she could summon from that instant. It became a bivouac she could watch from. What she watched that first time was a big man with gleaming eyes and a red, wet mouth at the heart of his beard . . . his hands grasped lower, tugging her apart like the halves of an apricot. Then not his hand but the blind brute of his penis, cramming itself in wherever it could . . .
Men lining up for her.
Having ideas about her.
Fingering her in their thoughts while they finger themselves.
They paste her with their thoughts till there is no air left to breathe.
Not one of them has ever seen her.
Only Hector saw her. Saw loneliness rather than beauty.
After Paris’ death, ‘she is passed like a tasty bone from son of Priam to son of Priam. Deiphoebus is next in line.’ All things to all men, she approaches the wooden horse. ‘She has guessed its secret. Senses that it is full and waiting to hatch.’ She whispers to the men inside, and each of them hears the voice of his wife. Menelaus has been planning to kill her, but when at last he finds her, waiting for him in a small room in Priam’s palace, he chooses instead to repossess her. ‘“Mine,” he thinks. “She’s mine.”’
In counterpoint to Helen’s story is that of a small Trojan boy who hides from the Greeks – of whom the most savage is Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus – in a well. As Menelaus leads Helen away through the burning city, ‘in the well it grows hot. The flames that are romping through the city, eating it up, suck out the air from the well-shaft till there is none left to breathe.’ Like Helen, but physically rather than emotionally, he is suffocated by the actions of men to whom he remains invisible. And Neoptolemus, as if he has a sixth sense for death, ‘wipes his sword clean when he sees there is no one left to kill’.
With the emphasis Cook places on the continuity between the Homeric age and our own, it’s hard not to think of the sack of Troy as the first ‘war crime’ committed in the Balkans (this needn’t be an anachronism – if the values of ‘human rights’ are universal they must extend through time as well as space). Now and then she insists too much on this kind of continuity: her story can seem as if it’s trying too strenuously to justify its own relevance, when much of that work has already been done for it by the bulk of literature that precedes it, filling in and filling out the elisions and allusions, laying the foundation that allows it to stand in its own right as the compelling work that it is.