The Iliad (Book 1): Rage & Christopher Logue’s “Kings”
It’s been several years since I’ve read The Iliad. I’m fairly sure that was the Lattimore translation. I was spurred to reread it recently as I’ve written about elsewhere – and “elseforum” as we used to say. I’ll be reading two texts this time around: an e-version of a recent Robert Fagles translation, and the – I’ll call them reimaginings – of The Iliad as written by the recently deceased Christopher Logue. I had read Logue with relish awhile back, but only the inspired War Music. War Music is Logue’s take on Books One-Four and Books Sixteen-Nineteen. Let’s get started. First Fagles.
Whence this rage of Achilles? The muses are called upon to explain, but we already know from the very beginning that the murderous Achilles is “doomed”. There’s a hint of the God’s will in this. More than a hint perhaps. The Gods have driven the two men (“Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles“) apart. Agamemnon had ignored the entreaty of Apollo’s priest (Chryses) to release his daughter, Chryseis. After being shown the wrath of the Gods, Agamemnon released her but compensated himself with the spoils of war that Achilles had been awarded, Briseis. “Let that man I visit choke with rage’” says Agamemnon.
Achilles nearly raises his sword to kill Agamemnon when the King takes his prize from him. Here the Gods intervene in a subtle way. Well, subtle after Athena grabs him by the hair first. That gets his attention. Athena tells Achilles that she has descended from the skies “to check [his] rage“, “if only you will yield“. This doesn’t sound like a command, but a suggestion that things might go better if he did yield.
Stop this fighting, now. Don’t lay hand to sword. Lash him with threats of the price that he will face And I tell you this – and I know it is the truth – one day glittering will lie before you, three times over to pay for all this outrage. Hold back now. Obey us both.
Achilles complies at once. “A man submits at once though his heart breaks with fury“, calling Agamemnon, “a staggering drunk” with “dog’s eyes” and a “fawn’s heart” – a “King who devours his people!“. This ain’t over by a long shot.
Logue seems not to conjure up the muse, but addresses the reader directly: “picture” this, “now look” at that. Achilles. Here his rage takes the form of tears. He is pissed. He tells his mother Thetis the story of how he had “stripped” a town and brought back, among other things, “30 fertile women.” Agamemnon had chosen a young girl (here Cryzia) to share his bed. Agamemnon, as the “King of kings“ had her as his first choice.
Logue’s rendering is full of purposeful anachronisms peppered throughout, like here, when Achilles’ is relating the events to Thetis:
Mother and Child And she asks: “Then what?” Their early pieta dissolves, And we move ten days back.
After Agamemnon has rebuffed Apollo’s priest, Logue begins the countdown. Day 10, a plague from Apollo. Day 9, Ajax (“grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”) makes the plea to send the girl back. He relents, but wants another. Achilles objects. Plain spoken, he cuts to the chase:
There is no pool. We land. We fight. We kill. We load. And then – After your firstlings – we allot. That is the end of it. We do not ask things back
“Boy” the King calls him Boy! “Achilles-san”. Achilles interrupts the King. “Mouth! King Mouth!”Things are not going at all well in the chain of command. Achilles cuts the blustering Agamemnon down to size:
“Heroes, behold your King – Slow as an arrow fired feathers first To puff another’s worth, But watchful as a cockroach of his own. Behold his cause – Me first, me second, And if by chance there is a little left – me third.”
Bada freakin’ Bing.
Then Achilles drops the bomb. He’ll sail for home and not support this strutting popinjay any longer. Here Logue references another cinematic technique. The camera has been on Achilles during this Kingly put down. But after the bomb he drops, stage directions: Silence. Reverse the shot. Go close. Agamemnon takes his revenge and tells everyone that for his impertinence, he will take Achilles’ prize, Briseis. Whoah. Remember the Fagle translation? Where Athena grabs Achilles by the hair? When she did that no one but Achilles could see her. Check this out from Logue. Same scene.
Achilles’ face Is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat. His brain says: ‘Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home.” His thigh steels flex And then, Much like a match-flame struck in full sunlight, We lose him in the prussic glare Teenage Athena, called the Daughter Prince – who burst Howling and huge out of God’s head – sheds From her hard, wide-apart eyes, as she enters And stops time.
Stops time! Delicious! Athena collars his plait and draws his head back like a favorite doll. “Be still” she whispers in his ear. Then…time restarts. After Achilles exhorts the masses to do what is right, do the honorable thing. Silence. Achillles and Patrolcus exit stage right.
Later Nestor seeks out Achilles at his tent, a moonlit, Cubist, dune to ask him to reconsider his decision. No, no. The story finished, we are back with Achilles and his mother and replay the wonderfully lovely scene that began the Book:
And when he was alone he soiled himself, His body and his face, with ash, Then, naked, walked, half walked, half trotted out, Face wet with tears, across his court, Now past its gate, its guard, And, having vanished from their sight, Ran fast enough to overtake the light
Here Logue inserts a description of the sacrifice to Apollo to make the plague die. After Thetis cajoles Zues, Hera takes her shot at him. He tells her to simply shut her mouth, or in the vernacular STFU!
It was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia
I mean, really quiet! Logue’s Chapter One ends with an old vaudeville joke (maybe you’ve heard it?), on the carrot on the stick that passes for free will:
“How can a mortal make a God smile?” (Two…three…) “Tell Him his plans…”
The Iliad (Book Two): The Armies Gather & Christopher Logue’s “Kings”
Zeus tosses and turns about his need to placate Thetis and not piss off Hera. How does he put things in motion to “exalt” Achilles while slaughtering the Achaeans – the “long-haired Achaeans”? Ah, a dream of course. Perchance. So Zeus puts on his best Nestor face and visits the sleeping Agamemnon. When he awakens, Agamemnon has fallen for Zeus’ ploy, hook and line. And sinker too! He uses a bit of reverse psychology on his men to pump them up for the fight. Knute Rockne with a “kingly scepter”. Then he reverses course. Nine years is enough. Athena prods Odysseus and he tells the increasingly agitated army that Agamemnon was only kidding.
Thersites has seen Achilles verbally abuse Agamemnon, so he figures he’ll give it a shot as well and lays in to Agamemnon. Odysseus beats the crap out of him. Then Athena (in disguise. Oh how the Gods love their disguises) reminds the army that victory is just around the corner. Or should I say, the light is at the end of that there tunnel. Calchas has said that the tenth year would provide glorious victory over Troy. The Greek army is now of one mind. The thunderous footsteps sound like a May Day celebration, regiment after regiment marching past, eyes left. Iris, “the wind-quick messenger” speeds to Ilium to let the Trojans know that the battle is joined.
Then follows the famous catalogue of the fighting forces for both the Greeks and the Trojans. A bit boring, actually, but I’m sure it was a thrill back in the day.
Logue begins Book Two (Kings Book Two) with a seemingly addled Priam. A child enters his chamber and he doesn’t know who he is. Well, whaddya expect with 50 or so male offspring. He has the child wipe the smutz from his mouth. His herald shows up and Priam rises (all “eight foot six” of him) to attend a council meeting. It’s a war council. A frank discussion ensues about the right and the wrong of it all. The fact is, that Paris abused the hospitality of the Greeks and stole Helen from King Menelaus. Bad Manners, Bad Karma. Sentiment to send Helen back gets a rousing applause. But Anchises begs to differ. The Greeks are a different breed.
Their way of life, perpetual war; Inspired by violence, compelled by hate; To them, peace is a crime, and offers of diplomacy Like giving strawberries to a dog.
Anchises – and Priam – put down the cowardly argument of Antenor. There is division. Into this melee Prince Hector comes. It’s an entrance to beat all entrances, magisterial, magical, and very nearly godlike. Helen is no prisoner. She is free to leave at any time. Hector yearns for the things of life that peace will bring, but sometimes peace is only achieved through war.
…it is a manly thing, an honoutable thing, to die while fighting for one’s country
The argument of back-seat driver’s. Hector urges them all to stay the course. That “Fate’s sister, Fortune, favours those who keep their nerve.” But as soon as he has uttered this pronouncement, word comes that Achilles is about to sail for home. The chamber erupts again, but for Hector this changes nothing as he predicts the he will bury Greece. Again the narrator directs the readers attention “over there” and the movie of this scene would be a tracking shot up the winding stairs to where Helen stands on a balcony beside her Paris and realizes they want to send her back to Menelaus. Another scene change. Fade out Helen-Paris. Fade in Hector-Andromache. She worries over Hector that “courage can kill as well as cowardice.”
And now a word from out sponsors.
In 1959, Logue was asked to join a BBC team that was working on broadcastingThe Iliad to its audience. On and off for the rest of his life he was involved with Homer’s epic in one way or another. Spoken words from a radio broadcast can certainly be likened as the modern-day equivalent of the ancient tradition of oral poetic recitation.
Logue’s translations were…remarkable for the cinematic fluidity of narrative and stark depiction of the brutality of hand-to-hand fighting. “Never was blood bloodier or fate more fatal,” observed Louis MacNeice. [from Logues obit in The Telegraph]
He was first and foremost a poet himself, but knew that didn’t pay the bills. Here’s a priceless little ditty from Logue:
Last night in London Airport I saw a wooden bin labelled UNWANTED LITERATURE IS TO BE PLACED HEREIN So I wrote a poem and popped it in
And now. Back to out regularly scheduled (pronouned “shed-yuled”) program(me). Andromache begs Hector to send Helen back. As for Helen, “desire will always be her side-effect.” She urges him towards peace. The aisles are divided. War or Peace. The eternal conundrum.
The Iliad, Book Three: Helen Eyes the Field
The armies have marched toward each other until they stand face to face. Paris struts his stuff, challenging the Greeks to fight him “face-to-face in mortal combat.” When Menelaus sees this “flaunting”, he’s just about licking his chops. He can’t wait to get him some Paris. Homer describes Menelaus as
like a lion lighting on some handsome carcass, lucky to find an antlered stag or a wild goat just as hunger strikes – he rips it, bolts it down…
You can see Menelaus’ teeth stuck in the throat of Paris, shaking him like a slaughtered antelope. As Paris backs safely into the friendlies, Homer seems steeped in irony when he writes of this action – magnificent, brave Paris. Hector is embarrassed for his brother, but incensed at his cowardly actions: an outrage – a mockery. Paris argues that the whole thing is not his fault. The Gods made him do it – specifically Aphrodite. Whatever the gods give of their own free will – how could we ever choose them for ourselves? Seems that since time immemorial (or at least since the time of the Trojan wars) – man has blamed the heavens for his actions. God told me to do it. Nevertheless, Hector proposes (again) that a winner take all match between he and Menelaus settle this once and for all. May the best man win. Hector is pleased, but puts himself in harm’s way as the Greek archers let fly. Agamemnon urges them to desist. They all agree that this is the way forward, but after a sacrifice, King Priam must validate the pact.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, palace, Priam and his advisers are watching the chess game on the battlefield. The King asks Helen to be the color man, and run down the Greek side for him. Helen looks down longingly, and wonders if it has all been but a dream. Priam rides out through the gates “heading toward the plain.”
The pact sealed by the blood of sacrifice, Paris and Menelaus prepare for battle. Paris gets the first shot and his thrust fails to pierce the tough armor of Menelaus. Next Menelaus lets it fly and…what? How did that happen? Then he brings his sword down on the head of Paris and…this cannot be. He grabs Paris and is about to choke him to death when Aphrodite intervenes, snatches Paris away
…easy work for a god, wrapped him in swirls of mist and set him down in his bedroom filled with scent.
It’s like Wayne’s world out there. It’s blame the gods day. Helen too, like Paris before her, take no personal responsibly for the fact that it has all come to this. But she is disgusted and ashamed of Paris’ cowardice, compared to the courage of Menelaus. She recalls the boast of Paris that he was the better man. All a joke now. A footnote to Paris’ humiliation. Paris says (again blaming the gods), that Menelaus won thanks only to Athena. “I’ll bring him down tomorrow.” Paris just seems like a whining, pampered Prince. I’ll get him next time. They sex their spat and all is well. Except that Menelaus is wondering how that slippery eel got away? One minute he was about to bash his skull down to his breastbone, and the next minute he’s left holding his wang-chung. Not only does it take two to tango, it takes two to battle for glory. Menelaus demands a forfeit. Reparations! Reparations!
Back with Logue and Agamemnon’s dream. He quotes Nestor:
What Heaven has ordered, Heaven can change. If God says total war, total it is.
and only heaven can change. Not only do we fight God’s fight, we are merely soldiers in God’s army. “Total war” sounds like the jihadists battle cry. With God between man and the slaughter, all moral imperatives are lifted. We are free to exercise our brutal natures.
And how are these – these words from Agamemnon – meant to be heard?
Never forget that we are born to kill. We keep the bloodshed to the maximum.
Words for ethnic cleansers to live by.
Logue understood the mob psychology of war. The manipulation of the masses. When Agamemnon’s lieutenants lead the pawns to come to the “right” conclusion, half the battle was won. A cadre of true believers, when rallied, are more powerful than the sum of its parts. A tired and hungry army has been turned this way, turned that way. Until they
fell in love with war again
Husbands ~ Christoper Logue ~ An Account of Books 3 & 4
Catching up. Getting in sync. War. Did ever a general tell his troops, utter these words in preparation for battle?: Prepare to be in constant touch with death. No? Perhaps not. But Logue has Hector, valiant Hector utter these words. And what is Breakfast in Heaven like? Logue tells us, see? Ambrosia alba wreathed with whispering beads. Like chessmen Hera and Athene will the Greeks onward to a martial beat until they came over that last low rise of the plainNow. Now the battle is to be joined. Looking at the imposing wall of Troy, Agamemnon pulls his sword from his sheath and you can see-hear the entire Greek army doing the same
And this de-scabbarding was heard in Troy Much like a shire-sized dust-sheet torn in half
The challenge of Hector. Paris, the one who started it all, is volunteered to face Menekaus. Logue fast forwards to the Napoleonic wars to find a comparison with Paris, and provides us with the Dandy King, the King of Naples, Joachim Murat. Murat is shown with 50 Hats, and 50 plumes. Oh, and 10,000 cavalry.Again, the Gods made me do it. Paris takes no responsibility for having stolen Helen from the Greeks. What else could he have done. It was in his nature. Nature given to him by Aphrodite.
They hated him. He was exceptionally beautiful
Hera and Athene watch it all from above in bemusement. They’re going to what? Make a common sacrifice and swear an oath? To us? For…peace? Hahahahah.
they do it frequently
Peace or war. The eternal choice. Today’s Facebook “Research Poll”: Do you think we will achieve world peace within 50 years? ο Yes ο No Your response will be kept anonymous…i want to vote for peace, but i don’t want anyone to know.
The Iliad, Book Four: The Truce Erupts in War
[They gave a peace rally and war broke out”]
When the Gods clearly have chosen sides for their own purposes, and they war amongst themselves, interfering in the affairs of man, first one faction, and then the other, what does this mean for the free will of man? Zeus and Hera agree on what they will concede to each other – which cities Zeus will allow Hera to desecrate at her whim and vice-versa. Such is free will among the Gods: Zeus concedes to Hera’s plan for the destruction of Troy “of his own free will but hardy willing.” Athena is dispatched to interfere in the peace of man. Oh, n0. Not again. Why cannot the Gods stay in the heavens and leave us to ourselves?
Athena does not directly interfere but appeals to mans baser instincts: pride and glory. Hey Lycaon! Wouldn’t it be fine if you shot an arrow into cuckhold Menelaus? Think of your approval rating. The fame you’d garner. Athena whispers these things to him, but the thoughts, the ideas become Lycaon the Archer’s own. Like he’d thought of them himself. Can the Gods suggest, cajole, encourage? Yes. But can they actually make man conform to their will? Like hypnosis, will man do anything that is against his true nature, no matter what the Gods propose’?
Agamemnon rallies his troops while the blood flows from Menelaus (a non-life threatening wound). He comes upon Nestor, who always impresses him, even at his age. Nestor replies to Agamemnon
…the gods, wont give is all their gifts at once. If I was a young man then, now old age dogs my steps. Nevertheless, I’ll still troop with the horsemen, give them maneuvers discipline and commands: that is the right and pride of us old men.
Now. On to the bloody bits.
The Iliad, Books 5-6 & Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red
The battle heats up and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard: man fights man, man fights Gods, and Gods fight amongst themselves. One thing is certain, blood and death abound. But as we progress, Homer personalises theses deaths. Whereas initially, there were clashes with anonymous players, now we hear of their doomed exploits, of their personalities, their lineage. The violence is graphic and R-Rated. The deaths fade to various shades of darkness
the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders, goughing his flesh and jutting out through his ribs Result?: he fell with a crash, his armor rang against him the famous spearman stabbed a heavy javelin deep in his right shoulder Result?: gripped by the hateful dark the great spearman ran him through, square between the blades…tearing into his flesh, drilling out through his chest Result?: he crashed facedown, his armor clanged against him speared him low in the right buttock – the point pounding under the pelvis, jabbed and pierced the bladder Result?: he dropped to his knees, screaming, death swirling round him. the famous spearman struck behind his skull, just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing straight up through the jaws, cutting way the tongue Result?: he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold breeze flailed with a sword, slashed the Trojan’s shoulder and lopped away the massive bulk of Hypensor’s arm…the bloody arm to the earth Result?: red death came plunging down his eyes, and the strong force of fate. the shaft…split the archer’s nose between the eyes – it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze cut iff his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw and the point came ripping out beneath his chin Result?: his life and power slipped away in the wind
And on…and on, the carnage like a stream in spate, a routing winter torrent sweeping away the dikes. When the raging Diomedes, like a force of nature is wounded, his champion Athena lifts the mist from his eyes, he can now tell the Trojans from the Gods who are also playing their interfering parts and gives him leave to stab her with his sharp bronze spear. Odysseus ends up wounding two of the Gods: Aphrodite and Ares. Zeus tells Aphrodite that her place is essentially in the kitchen. Let Ares take care of the war. But Zeus hates Ares telling him that strife is always dear to his heart. Chaos reigns in the world due to the conflicting wills of the Gods. Thus far the war has raged first with one side (Troy) getting the upper hand, then the Greeks, the Trojan soldiers rallying back. It’s a donnybrook. Diomedes is in the ascendancy once again. A Raging Bull. When Helenus (a seer, and his brother) tells Hector that the only way to reign in Diomedes is by a precious gift and praying at the temple of Athena. He gives him very specific instructions on what needs to be done. When Hector meets his mother we have a deja vu moment – and there are many of these throughout the Iliad. What Hector tells his mother is word for word what Helenus had told him . Hector also drags Paris away from polishing his brass, and shames him in to accompanying him back to the battlefield. Homer shows how, in Hector at least, great love of family can co-exist in the heart of a fearsome warrior when he shows the great man of war breaking into a broad smile as he hugs his infant son. This fairly close after the vivid descriptions of gore and bloodletting. Hector can see the concern in Andromache’s eyes (his wife) as he is about to leave for the battlefield. He tries to reassure her that no man can harm him unless it’s his fate to die in that moment.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you – it’s born with us the day that we are born.
He shames Paris into joining him in battle, and so back to the plain…to meet their fates or play out their destinies.
All Day Permanent Red, Christopher Logue (Blood on the Plains of Troy)
There is tension and anticipation immediately as Logue approaches the first battle scenes in The Iliad. The Greek armies are poised and await Hector. Can’t start without Hector. Then the man emerges from the gates of Troy, like “Werewolves of London” (his hair was perfect) Hector comes
His silver mittens up (a perfect fit, They go with everything)
When they see Hector, the Greek army gets to their feet. And what an imaginative and evocative scene. We see it. We hear it. And damn near smell it.
Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind. And the receding traction of its slats Of its slays of its slats as a hand draws it up
In a perfect description of an East African Lion slithering toward its prey, Logue describes the advancement if Hector. But from the other side comes The Child (Diomedes), that force of nature. This warning:
If you cannot give death the two-finger flip Do not fight by or against Queen Hera’s human
I gave several examples from the Homer translation I’m using of the battle deaths (and there are many). Logue holds his own (and then some), but does not list event after event. Hector sees that Palt, one of his captains has been run through by The Child and sees him
now on his hands and knees, Holding the slick blue-greenish loops of his intestines up Though some were dragging in the dust.
Oh there is blood. Blood enough. This is permanent red after all. Blood? Blood like a car-wash: “But it keeps the dust down”. Seeing this, Hector orders a tactical retreat which lures the Child and his men into a trap. An epigram for war:
Host must fight host, And to amuse the Lord our God Man slaughter man.
Not only does Logue use anachronisms dropped into descriptive phrases (Palt’s Porsche-fine chariot) he explicitly refers to and uses an excerpt from Miss Heber’s Diary: 1908. Mid-June). Whether there was such a diary I was not able to determine, but, no matter.
There is a brief lull in the battle. You can feel a calm on the battlefield, a calm beyond waking consciousness, a calm that has its own voice, a calm that is like a dream of a battle already fought, a battle that has ended. But no. Just before the skies are filled with 10,000 javelins (or just before the dark yellow dusk sky is filled with the ack-ack of Huey gunship tracers illuminating the near darkness like a celebration of death, or just before the rustle of leaves in the night canopy of the forest lets go into savage war whoops, or just before the acrid smell of mustard gas descends to ground level and chokes the lungs into submission…), just before Hector tells the armies of both sides that
This is the moment when you understand That there is nothing in between You and the enemy Too soon You may be lying, one life less, seeing the past, Or standing over someone you have known Since childhood (or never known) beseeching you To finish them, Or on the run, Or one of those who blindfold those who run, Or one of those who learn to love it all.
Odd that the number 300,000 makes an appearance here (300,000 plunging tons of aircraft carrier). I recently watched The City of Life and Death, about the massacre at Nanking in which 300,000 lives were estimated to have been lost. A nice round number, easy to remember. And large enough to lose the perspective of individuality, something that the film remedies in sobering fashion.
And Achilles is nowhere to be found, still sulking in his tent. Logue references Generals past –
King Richard calling for another horse (his fifth). King Marshal Ney shattering his sabre on a cannon ball King Ivan Kursk, 22.30 hrs.
Hector prays. The Child no longer Child. He will age 10 years on this day. Cries of God is on our side, as always and forever in war. God the war mongerer. God the enabler. God the last word on the lips of all ‘righteous’ men.
The earth And its attendant moon (Neither of great importance But beautiful and dignified) Making their way around the sun.
The Iliad Books 7-8, Cold Calls (Christopher Logue)
The Iliad Book Seven: Ajax Duels with Hector
Shortly after Hector and Paris emerge from the gates of Troy they are in the kill zone. Apollo and Athena however, agree to a plan to halt the fighting while Hector challenges Achaea’s bravest man. The conduit for this plan is Priam and while Hector makes the challenge to the assembled throng, the two Gods for all the world like carrion birds, like vultures settle in an oak tree to observe. Like vultures. Surely this is not a casual bird choice. The slaughter of both sides is great sport to the gods, fresh meat being butchered. The sight of Hector about to issue his challenge has the men of both sides settling down on the plain. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of tens of thousands of armed soldiers settling down? For there is a sound like no other
Wave on wave of them settling, close ranks shuddering into a dense, bristling glitter of shields and spears and helmets- quick as a ripple the West wind suddenly risen shudders down the sea and the deep sea swell goes dark beneath its force- so settling waves of Trojan ranks and Achaeans rippled down the plain.
Like the sound of dominoes falling, only ten, no one hundred times louder. Then Hector makes his proposal and as if seeing into a possible future, makes a curious remark about the handling of the vanquished body after death. No man left behind. Bodies will be returned (after the ritual and profitable stripping of armour of course). They will then be available to their compatriots, to their countrymen for proper soldiers burial. A burial in a mound in memorium for future generations te see, to remember. Lest they forget. A place for their people to pay their respects to those who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’. To the vanquished (and the dead) goes the memorial. To the victor goes the fame.
The Achaeans are not exactly falling all over themselves to take up Hector’s challenge. Finally Menelaus mans up. Not so fast. Agamemnon counsels reason. Menelaus is not nearly the fighter that Hector is. Menelaus readily stands down. You can almost hear his sigh of relief. And see the gods dangling ropes of victory not yet arrayed around the neck of some mere mortal. Nestor rises to speak. Old soldiers never die they just bluster and strut away into the sunset. ‘If I were young again’, and ‘in my day’. War stories. Pull a string and they’re off again, like toy soldiers with a voice box of platitudes. Hey, Nestor. We’ve heard this a million times already, ok?
The Achaeans hold a Draft Lottery, and Ajax gets the call. They meet. They duel. The gods interfere. They withdraw for the evening, but before they do, exchange the souvenirs of war. Picked not from a dead body this time, but from a mutual exchange. We soldiers do love our mementoes. Offers of peace are shouted down, seen as a sign of weakness, seen as an assurance of victory, seen as a loss of will on the other side. Peace. When tha freight train War pulls out of the station, fully stoked, there’s no stopping it. It’s a runaway. The die is cast. When War has a full head of steam, there is no putting the brakes on. It’ll grind to a halt only after it has run its course.
The Iliad Book Eight: The Tide of Battle Turns
When Zeus demands a non-interference clause from the other gods, he pronounces – among other things – a striking image: he threatens to Leave the whole world dangling in mid-air. Think of time in man’s consciousness and time – or is it timelessness? – in the domain of the gods. For a God to leave the world hanging in mid-air like this can seem but an instant. For man it could seem like decades – like a lifetime. Some would say that if there were a god (was a god?) then He has long since abandoned us. Abandoned us to our own devices. To our own schemes and deadly games. If we and our earth have been left dangling by that golden cable it is becoming increasingly frayed. Earth – and man – is in danger of crashing down into the void, our mutual destruction assured. God may still be watching, but has left us to our own fates. Watching, waiting and wondering at the outcome.
Zeus scales the fates of men of both armies and down went Achaea’s day of doom and the fate of Troy went lifting toward the sky. It’s that easy. Destinies decided, what use of fighting. For the glory, of course. The thrill of victory and all that. The Trojans lead the slaughter. Night falls once more. The morrow will bring annihilation.
and the ground streamed blood
Christopher Logue’s Cold Calls (War Music Continued)
One Trojan came to Troy in a taxi. Dead. Athena leans in a window as Hera examines her gums. The Sisters Karamazov. Things aren’t going well for the two who are all in on the Achaeans. All 50,000 of them. The Trojans are again advancing. The great Achaean bow man Teucer, not a 4 x4 but a 5 x 5 (5 feet high and 5 feet wide), is poised and ready to let fly. The Trojans advance with the head of a fallen Greek atop a lance
and twizzling the pole Beneath the blue, the miles of empty air, Marched to the chingaling of its tinklers, A majorette, towards the Greeks, the tower.
Like the Greatest Marching Band in Dixie. Ba-Doom… Ba-Doom… Ba-Doom, Ba-Doom, Ba-Doom. A mother hears of her son Nyro, his head lopped of and lying in the grass. She is distraught and inconsolable as mothers are who lose their children to that pan-demic War. Fodder for the evening news, for the Mass Media. Like the Vietnamese child running naked from the napalm. A Pulitzer for sure.
‘I saw her running round. I took the photograph. It summed the situation up. He was her son. They put it out in colour. Right? My picture went around the world.’
Despite the injunctures of Zeus, the gods revert back to their interfering ways. Aphrodite (dressed/In grey silk lounge pyjamas piped with gold/And snakeskin flip-flops) gets between Diomed and Aeneas, prompting Hera in Heaven to whisper to Diomed: ‘Greek, cut that bitch.’ That bitch being Our Lady of the Thong, Aphrodite.
Teucer is still keeping his eyes peeled for Hector and lets another one fly, but misses, putting it through the back of his trumpeter’s (Telespiax’) head. Later his father gives this interview, grief always popular consumption:
‘Our worst fear was his face would fade… But it did not. We shall remember it until we die.’
As the gods are having trouble pleasing their worshipers (you can please some of the people all the time and all the people…), Zeus offers this sage advice to avoid the trap of human fidelity:
Darlings,’ He said, ‘You know that being a god means being blamed. Do this – no good. Do that – the same. The answer is: Avoid humanity. Remember – I am God. I see the bigger picture.’
The definition of faith for man.
Hector and the Trojans seem about to torch the Achaean ships and slaughter all The Myceneans. Night falls and tomorrow seems assured to be the last day on earth for the Greek contingent. An emergency Embassy to Achilles is sent (Hector and Ajax) with the greatest benefaction ever known which Achilles rejects out of hand repeating over and over and over again: I will not fight for him. The Muhammad Ali of his time.
Achilles lifts up his guitar. The Embassy is over.
The Iliad, Books 9-15
All quiet before the dawn. King A knows he has to fix it with Achilles, or the next time the shit hits the fan, it’s liable to be curtains for himself and most of the others. He sends an Embassy to Achilles which is an utter failure. So much for forgiveness. Achilles hates him. Like, really hates him. He won’t lift a finger to help. Not until Hector is about to set flame to his ship. Let the rest of the fleet burn for all he cares.
This news keeps King A up all night. He calls another war council. Both camps are wondering about the intentions of the other. Will the Greeks flee? Will the Trojans attack at night. Both camps send out spies. The Greeks capture the Trojan spy and wring him for information – then cut of his head. The white flag of pow-wow must have come later to the rules of engagement handbook. Then they commence to thrash the Thracians.
The battle resumes full throttle the next morning with the Greeks once again gaining the upper hand in this see-saw war. Then when Odysseus is wounded, the Trojans get the upper hand. The Gods once more get involved when Zeus seems to lose interest. Filling the power vacuum, Poseidon begins to shape the outcome on the Greek side.
Using her sexual allure, Hera lulls Zeus to sleep, so that she can openly aid the Greek cause. The war goes on and it ebbs and flows. As there are more battle scenes presented, the violence appears to ramp up level by level, the deaths are more brutal and the victims are made more human to us. Homer is slowly building to his indictment when Achilles will make his appearance after the death of Patroclus. But I’m, getting ahead of myself. Poseidon, while Zeus is otherwise detained, is causing quite a stir.
and a wild surf pounded the ships and shelters, squadrons clashed with shattering war cries rising, Not so loud the breakers bellowing out against the shore, driven in from the sea by the North Wind’s brutal blast, not so loud the roar of fire whipped to a crackling blaze rampaging into a mountain gorge, raging up through timber, not so loud the gale that howls in the
We’re almost there Patroclus. Achilles . And War laid bare upon the stage. Zeus wakes up from his sexually induced snooze and sees bro Poseidon leading the Greeks to victory. Hector literally bowled over by Ajax. Spoiler ahead: Patroclus will die in battle at the hands of Hector, Achilles will slay Hector….wait. You may already know this. Plus, how can it be a spoiler if God hizone self let’s us in on the future events? Which is what he does. Zeus tells Hera that he will never cease [his] anger…not till Achilles’ prayer has been fulfilled.
“So I vowed at first. I bowed my head in assent that day the goddess Thetis clutched my knees, begging me to exalt Achilles scourge if cities.”
War is sometimes all about a mother’s needs for her son’s glory. Especially if he will die in the battle. El sacrificio ultimato.
When Hera drops the bomb shell on Poseidon, he’s angry as a wet cat. Who tf is Zeus to dictate to him? Whatever happened to the separation of powers. Our founding fathers….wait. I’m, channeling Newt Gingrich. The three brothers (Zeus, Poseidon and Hades) all were sprung from Cronus as equals. They were given their own realms. A three-way split. The earth? Well, the earth was to be common to them all. The place where they would work out their silly-psychodramas, playing “God” with the lives and aspirations of man.
After Poseidon withdraws, Apollo revives Hector from his not lethal but painful assault at the hands of Hector by a rallying cry.
That breathed tremendous strength in the famous captain. As a stallion full-fed at the manger, stalled too long, breaking free of his tether gallops down the plain, out for his favorite plunge in a river’s cool currents thundering in his pride – his head flung back, his mane streaming over his shoulders, sure and sleek in his glory, knees racing him on to the fields and stallion-haunts he loves – so Hector hurtled on, his legs driving, his knees pumping, spurring his reinsmen once he heard the god’s command.
As the Trojans seem to get closer and closer to ultimate victory, Patroclus rushes to Achilles’ side to persuade him of the urgency. The fight is taken right to the ships. In war, with backs to the wall, the underdogs just get fiercer and fiercer in battle. Apollo is having his way with the Greeks at this point
…he tore that Argive rampart down with the same ease some boy at the seashore knocks sand castles down – he no sooner builds his playthings up, child’s play, than he wrecks them all with hands and kicking feet, just for the sport of it. God of the wild cry, Apollo
The Iliad Book 16 (Homer) and War Music: Patrocleia (Christopher Logue)
THE ILIAD, BOOK 16 (Fagles translation)
Book 16 is the seminal book in the Iliad. The peak to which this epic has been moving. Patroclus seeks out Achilles not so much to plead once again for him to take his rightful place in the battle (that seems a lost cause), but to seek his approval at least for him (Patroclus) to don Achilles’ armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle. He makes Patroclus promise that he will not fall to the enticements of glory by taking the fight to the walls if Troy. Achilles prays to Zeus to make it so. But Zeus allows only half of Achilles prayers. And so it is ordained. Patroclus dons Achilles’ armour and drives the Trojans from the ships. He strikes fear in the hearts of Trojans and kills many, including the favorite son of Zeus, Sarpedon. But despite promises elicited by Achilles, Patroclus reaches the walls of Troy and attempts to breach them until Apollo shrieks at him. He backs down. Retreats a safe distance. When Hector sees this he hesitates. Pursue? Time seems to stand still.
I had forgotten how Patroclus died. I had thought that he was slain by Hector. But first there was Apollo who banged him around. Then Euphorbus with a spear to the back.
then, Patroclus, the end of life came blazing up before you.
yes, the lord Apollo met you there in the heart of battle
the god, the terror! Patroclus never saw him coming
right at his back, close-up, a Darden fighter speared him
squarely between the shoulder blades
Patroclus staggers back to his own thronged comrades. Hector, seeing him mortally wounded goes in for the kill and puts a spear right through him.
Down he crashed – horror gripped the Achaen armies.
As when some lion overpowers a tireless wild boar
up on a mountain summit, battling in all their fury
over a little spring of water, both the beasts craving
to slake their thirst, but the lion beats him down
with sheer brute force as the boar fights for breath
Fist bumps and chest thumps all ’round. But Mr. P sets him straight with his dying breath: deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me. Patroclus tells Hector that he was only 3d in line as he dies. Hector plants a foot on Patroclus’ chest and removes his spear, then kicks him over.
Logue interprets Patroclus’ entreaties with this simple, stark line: And so he begged for death since that will be the result as it has been foretold. The wages for this particular war maneuver as written by the gods.
In history, we hear about rape as a weapon of war, and we shudder. What have we come to? Is this something new? It seems to be a 20th Century phenomenon. I had thought. But no. One realizes that this has been a weapon of war forever. It’s startling to read lines like this in Homer (here Logue) as Achilles lays out his resentment – again, of Briseis: that she was mine by right of rape and conquest. I guess I’m still naive. This makes war all the more shameful. There is no glory in this.
Achilles assents, but with this instruction/warning:
Don’t overreach yourself, Patroclus.
Without me you are something, but not much.
Let Hector be. He’s mine – God willing.
In any case he’d make a meal of you,
And I don’t want you killed.
But neither do I want to see you shine at my expense.
It’s startling to see how much Achilles, still holding back from the battle himself, still wants to preserve the glory for himself and himself alone. In Book 16 (above) Homer had imaged the slaying of Patroclus as between a lion and a wild boar. Here, Logue sets the scene for Achilles’ commands to the assembled Myrmidons, with more images from the wild animal kingdom:
First sunlight off the sea like thousands of white birds.
Imagine wolves: an hour ago the pack
Hustled a stag, then tore it into shreds.
Now they have gorged upon its haunch
They need a drink to wash their curry down.
So, sniffing out a pool, they loll their long,
Thin, sharp-pointed tongues therein; and as they lap
Rose-coloured billows idle off their chops,
Drifting throughout the water like pink smoke.
God that’s just gorgeous and again, as I’ve said about many of Logue’s poetic images, so effing cinematic. Can you not see the diluted blood flowing slowly down stram as the wolves slake their thirst in the ambling waters? Then Logue proves he can match the poetic deaths of Greeks and Trojans alike with all other translations of Homer, when he records the first death where the ship is under assault by the Trojan forces:
Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.
An interesting choice though. Where most of the death images in other translations of Homer fade into darkness, blackness, Logue shines sunlight on the death. And as the battle turns little by little to the advantage of the Greeks (and the Myrmidons led by P), Logue refers not to glorious armies riding into the breach for god, country and to keep the world safe for democracy, to fight the war to end all wars, to cleanse the world of the yellow peril or the red peril or whatever colored peril is currently in vogue. No, Logue takes as his touchstone the lowly lemming.
You will have heard about the restless mice
Called lemmings; how, at no set time, and why,
No one is sure, they form a grey cascade that pours
Out of the mountains, down, across the flat,
Until they rush into the sea and drown.
Likewise the Trojans as they crossed the ditch.
As Patroclus pursues the Trojans toward their home ground mindless of everything Achilles said, Logue splendidly makes us see the battlefield as Patroclus sees it, as the gods see it:
An opened fan, held flat; its pin
(That marks the ditch) towards yourself; its curve
(That spans the plain) remote
The left guard points at Troy; the right
Covers the dunes that front the Aegean coast:
Like crabs disturbed by flame the Trojans run
This way and that across its radiants.
Patroclus thrusts his fighters at the mid
Point of the pleated leaf; a painted sun.
Logue attempts to sort through the gods and fate and the fortunes of man with Fate’s sister, Fortune, favours/Who keep their nerve. Perhaps. It is true that Thestor the son of Enops was caught cowering in his chariot. But if he had “kept his nerve” would his Fate have been any different? The death of Thestor is one that stays with you. Death here is not glorious. Death takes Thestor’s very humanity even as it takes his life. This particular death, I think, warrants direct comparison between Homer (in the Fagles translation) and Logue. First the Fagle translation of Homer:
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone,
ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard
he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail,
hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched
on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea,
some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.
So with the spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car,
his mouth gaping round the glittering point
and flipped him down face first,
dead as he fell, his life breath blown away
An older translation by Stanley Lombardo, which I happen to possess as well refers to “the noble catch” as “a fishing rod flips a flounder”! and the “life breath blown away” as “his soul crawled off”. Now Logue’ s take. Patroclus comes alongside Thestor’s chariot, bucking slowly over the rutted corpses strewn across the battlefield:
and gracefully as men in oilskin cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an opened tin.
No noble catch here. No alliterative flounder. No ‘breath blown away” or images of souls slouching towards Bethlehem. Just a fake trophy inserted for the enticement of a man already as good as dead. A canned sardine. Do tell.
It’s noon when Logue’s Sarpedon has his showdown with Patroclus. Nothing stirs on the plain except Striped mosquitoes. There is silence. All quiet on the western front. He likens the Patroclus-Sarpedon fight to bare necked hens/wrangling over carrion in the air. Logue also includes some interesting perspective to the grunt soldiers as he gets inside their heads with
“We fight when the sun rises; when it sets we count the dead.
What has the beauty of Helen to do with us?”
Can your hear the answer thundering. NADA! RIEN! And he who is forever talking about enemies/Is himself the enemy! Armchair warriors take note. The man at the head of the column who has drunk the Kool-Aide take note. Masters of war beware. Especially Patroclus who goes for the glory as Zeus does the thumbs down. APOLLO!
The last few pages of “The Patrocleia” are (have I used this word before? As Hector has the last word perhaps) simply sublime. Read them and see the film of the dying scene in your mind’s eye. Yes, yes. I’m getting repetitive on this point. Cinematically perfect, though no film has been made to do this justice.
The Iliad Books 17-18, War Music: GBH (Christopher Logue)
The armour having been stripped from Patroclus’ body, the fight is for the body itself. The Trojans would find this a major trophy (Hector’s plan is to lop the head of Patroclus off and put it atop a stake on the walls of Troy), while the Greek side with the loss of Patroclus’s body would have lost a major symbol for their side. In the end, the Greeks prevail. Only then is it time to send an emissary to Achilles to tell him the terrible news. Even the immortal horses of Achilles weep for him. Zeus observes this and says that
There is nothing alive more agonized than man
of all that breathe and crawl across earth.
But Achilles already senses his friend’s death. When the news is delivered by Antilochus, Achilles is overpowered in all his power. Death now for Achilles? Bring it on! But Achilles rouses himself and helps retrieve Patroclus’ body (by his presence), while Thetis has promised to bring new armour forged by Hephaestus. Night falls and Polydamus urges the Trojans to retreat to the city walls. A rested fighting force will always redouble its strength defending the Homeland. Hector violently disagrees. They’ll stay where they are. Hector, convinced that the glory will be his
“The god of war is impartial:
he hands out death to the man who hands out death.”
War Music: GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm)
I still – and constantly marvel – at the ability of Logues to make us see the battlefields and the surrounding plains, the sea, the moored ships. It’s a marvel, one would almost say of observation. But what it is is a marvel of vision. And he makes us – makes us – see his vision. In 3-D. A pursuit in the straight version can be unswervingly flat. They’re coming. They’re there. No perspective. Logue envisions Hector coming toward Patroclus’ body, protected by a Greek comrade, as seen through that comrades eyes:
Dust in the air? or smoke? a shout –
Source out of sight, but near, but out of sight
Behind the crest, trough, crest, trough, crest,
Now soon, now soon to be
Such depth of field. I see a dusty western plain, and then far off, something this way comes.
Not only his visual of the setting, but he can turn his eye toward a concise description of one of the fighters. His brief 9-line description of Bombax is priceless
Close up on Bombax; 45; fighting since 2;
Who wears his plate beneath his skin; one who has killed
More talking bipeds than Troy’s Wall has bricks;
Whose hair is long, is oiled, is white, is sprung,
Plaited with silver wire, twice plaited – strong? –
Why, he could swing a city to and fro with it
And get no crick; whose eye can fix
A spider’s web yoking a tent peg to its guy
Five miles downbeach – and count its spokes
The stripping of Achilles armor by Hector is a masterstroke of choreography, a ballet like war-dance sounding like Carmina Burana. And the battle for the corpse of Patroclus is not without its humor either, as Litte Alax moons a Trojan named Pellity. Calling Achilles Wondersulk. GBH also contains more cinematic direction with quick cuts and follow-spots. The fight for the body of Patroclus devolves into a literal tug-0-war between the warring armies. Until at last Thoal wrenches his body free, and the Greeks bear it back to their ships. Achilles, washing the body of Patroclus, promises to avenge his death with the head of Hector.
The Iliad Book 19, War Music: Pax (Christopher Logue)
Thetis brings the newly forged armor to Achilles, and the arming ritual begins again. Agamemnon makes his apologies to Achilles who listens with a no love lost attitude. For his part, he tells the gathering that he’ll let bygones be bygones. Agamemnon swears by the Gods that he had not lain with Briseis, and urges a feast to prepare for battle. Achilles wants to get the party started now, but Odysseus says it’s better to rest and get their strength back,
The promised bounty is brought from Agamemnon’s treasure (including Briseis) and transferred to Achilles’ ships. Athena, at Zeus’ behest provides nectar and sweet ambrosia for Achilles’ comfort and strength. Achilles is ready to rock and roll after admonishing his chariot stallions not to leave him out on the fields of battle as they had Patroclus.
Thetis presents the armour to Achilles. Made in Heaven. Achilles weeps over the body of Patroclus. The assembled throng, eyes averted, Achilles eyes? Like furnace doors ajar. When he feels the strength of the new armor, he says simply, “I’ll fight.”
And so Troy fell.
Logue translates the peace offerings between Achilles and Agamemnon in a universal way. Since time immemorial, men have met in assemblies to hash out their differences. But mostly this is going through th motions. Man attempts to put forth his grandest nature but his baser instincts seep through. The soft air of man’s self-hatred is a compulsive instinct. There is an in-built violence to our being. If true forgiveness is out of the question, then man must work on another level. Let true forgiveness be reserved for saints and the truly righteous, let man attempt civility – that’s hard enough.
No work was lovelier in history
And nothing failed so often: knowing this
The army came to hear Achilles say:
“Pax, Agamemnon.” And Agamemnon’s: “Pax”
Achilles takes Briseis back to his camp, and Odysseus accompanies him. They talk. Of friendship, of war, of Kings and man. This war. What has it all come to? The common soldier believes that if they be brave in battle, this will make them whole (it will not); that they be rich because of the spoils of war (they are not); that war is meaningful because they have lost comrades in battles (it is not). Achilles wakes then, and Logue completely captures the waking moments of man who has had limited, restless sleep, the sleep of a troubled mind. We’ve all awoken like this, as if to a new life, free. Only to quickly remember the troubles of the old life, the burdens that did not disappear in dreams. It’s all too real and comes flooding back.
Those who have slept with sorrow in their hearts
Know all too well how short but sweet
The instant of their coming-to can be;
The heart is strong, as if it never sorrowed;
The mind’s dear clarity intact; and then,
The vast, unhappy stone from yesterday
Rolls down these vital units to the bottom of oneself.
The last and lasting image as Logue closes out his War Music. Images of battlefields from all wars flood in. Bombed out and abandoned tanks in tan camo from the Gulf wars. Can openers stuck in the rice paddy from around the necks of Viet Cong, believing eternal tins of rations were just beyond the barbed wire. A flag atop Iwo Jima. The white crosses as far as the eye can see at Normandy. Likewise at Gettysburg. At Arlington National Cemetery. Back and back and back. Back to the plains of Troy
Someone had left a spear stuck in the sand.
The Iliad Books 20-24, Homer
Interesting that Zeus seems to indicate that a man’s fate can be challenged. Achilles fate is ordained, yet Zeus calls a council as a reminder of this fact. He fears that Achilles may be filled with such fury that his power cannot be constrained by mere fate, so Zeus calls his gods together and unleashes them all to aid whatever side they so choose. In heaven, this passes for leveling the playing field.
Yo mama. Aeneas and Achilles trade insults as they meet on the battle field. We both know each other’s birth, each other’s parents,/we’ve heard their far-flung fame on the lips of mortal men,/though you have never set eyes on mine, or I on yours.
Athena bitch-slaps Aphrodite as the gods have begun to fight each other. The hell with mortals. God against god, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. The gods have seemingly been seized by the frenzy of war, just as the mortals have been. Achilles, in a wild rabid frenzy storms toward the gates of Troy, now. Inside Priam begs Hector not to be so foolish as to attempt man-to-man combat with Achilles. Comparing an old man’s fate (his) with a young man’s, Priam tells Hector that the wounds of battle are marks of glory at least, unlike the ignoble end of old men. Hector’s parents weep for him. Hector waits
As a snake in the hills, guarding his hole, awaits a man –
bloated with poison, deadly hatred seething inside him,
glances flashing fire as he coils round the lair…
Hector knows that as it stands now, he will blamed for the state of the Trojan forces, blaming it on his reckless pride. He considers his course of action. Should he slip back inside the gates and take up a defensive position? That would be too shameful. Or he could take Achilles on and win the day or die in glory. But there’s also a third way. He could lay down his arms and make a peace-offering to Achilles…but no. Foolish thought. He flees.
and Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming
over the quarry, plunging over and over, his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill –
Achilles is actually chasing Hector around the walls of Troy. No glory here. Three times they go round. Zeus finds it all unbearable. On the fourth time he pulls out THE SCALES and down went Hector’s day of doom. Athena, knowing it was good as over, tells Achilles to hold on as she (in disguise of course) encourages Hector to stand his ground. Which he does. Hector offers a pact between them: that the victor will not mutilate the body, but return it to their families. Achilles will have none of it so in a rage of grief as he still is.
There are no binding oaths between men and lions –
wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds –
they are all bent on hating each other to the death.
When Hector’s spear fails to pierce Achilles’ armour after a direct hit, he knows his time has come. Better to go down in a blaze of glory then. He goes down with a spear through the neck.
Pleading one last time to respect his body, Achilles sneers at him. “Die, die!” The other Achaens on the field now come round Hector’s body, Achilles strips Hector’s armor – his armor – and they all have a go at stabbing at his flesh.
Now he was bent on outrage, on shaming noble Hector.
Piercing the tendons, ankle to heel behind both feet,
he knotted straps of rawhide through them both,
lashed then to his chariot, left the head to drag
and mounting the car, hoisting the famous arms aboard,
he whipped his team to a run and breakneck on they flew.
The scene cuts to the wails of grief inside the walls of Troy. But Andromache has not gotten the news yet as Homer relays a poignant scene made all the more sweetly sad as she is weaving deep within the castle walls. She calls for her cauldron to heat a bath for Hector’s return. But he will not return of course. He’ll never return again.
Back to the ships to mourn Patroclus properly. Achilles vows he will make good on his promises: let the dogs eat Hector, and decapitate 12 Trojans (they have already been stowed away in captivity). Hector lies face-dwon in the dust beside Patroclus’ bier. In his sleep, Achilles is visited by the ghost of Patroclus. The funeral pyre is set and consumes the body of his friendd (along with various horses, dogs and twelve Trojans which Achilles has hacked to pieces. Next morning…
At that hour the morning star comes rising up
to herald a new day on earth, and riding in its wake
the Dawn flings out her golden robe across the sea,
the funeral fires sank low, the flames died down.
And the winds swung round and headed home again,
over the Thracian sea, and the heaving swells moaned.
Achilles holds funeral games for Patroclus, a mini Olympics: First a chariot race in which Menelaus once again proves to be the punk he is. Then a boxing match, with Epeus stepping right up like an earlier version of Muhammad Ali.
I am the greatest!…
I’ll crush you with body-blows, I’ll crack your ribs to splinters!
Or, as we refer to it nowadays: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
Wrestling, a footrace, sword play, shot put, archery, spear throwing. The games concluded, Zeus send Thetis to tell Achilles that this all must stop. Achilles must return Hector to Priam. Iris is dispatched to Priam, telling him he must go, alone, to retrieve Hector’s body. Hermes paves the way for Priam to safely enter Achillles’ tent and both weep for their losses. Achilles commiserates with Priam, telling him that
the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments – the gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortunes, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcast – brutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.
Then Priam sees an opportunity to speed things along, telling Achilles they should conclude things immediately – Achilles should turn Hector’s body over immediately. This irritates Achilles and he warns Priam not to push it. After a meal, Achilles offers to hold off on the resumption of hostilities until Hector is buried properly. How long? Twelve days. Priam steals out in the darkness of night. The preparations are made for the funeral. It is done and Hector is buried. The story ends abruptly with
And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.
The Iliad is over, but not the story, which continues on in Homer’s Odyssey, and in several other ancient texts.
The War That Killed Achilles ~ Caroline Alexander
Alexander’s illuminating and heavily researched book breaks down The Iliad, Homer’s epic, always with a keen eye peeled for what the classic work can tell us about its primary subject: war. Make no mistake. Alexander hammers the point home time and time again. Where is she coming from? She tells us right off by titleing her first chapter “The Things They Carried”, a nod to Tim O’Brien’s modern day classic about war. Among other things, war can be brutally futile, meaningless. The Iliad, the story of the 10-year siege of Troy, ccommemorates a war that established no boundaries, won no territory, and furthered no cause. So what’s it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’. Let’s get this party started!
[As in my previous posts, the use of italics refers directly to the author’s words. Here, Caroline Alexander’s]
Achilles finds himself in a war not of his own making, following a leader who does not respect him and is an inferior warrior to himself. Muhammad Ali protested the war in Vietnam by wondering what them Viet Cong had ever done to him? Achilles wonders why he’s been asked to fight a war that he has no stake in.
Alexander writes, these are the questions that run throughout the Iliad. They are also the questions that come up in every war, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the “popularity” of the particular conflict:
Is a warrior ever justified in challenging his commander? Must he sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause? How is a catastrophic war ever allowed to start – and why, if all parties wish it over, can it not be ended? Giving his life for his country, does a man betray his family? Do the gods countenance war’s slaughter? Is a warrior’s death compensated by his glory?
We have here a war that is led by an inferior leader, who much of the gathered armies just do not trust. Dick Nixon? George Bush? Achilles questions the right of Agamemnon to lead. And after nearly ten-years of conflict, we have a demoralized army under a failed leadership. Mostly they just want to go home. Alexander quotes Achilles from The Iliad:
“I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan
spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing.
…but for your sake,
o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favour,
you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honour and Menelaos’
from the Trojans.”
I had read The Iliad and remembered it as leaving me with an unanswered question? Did the gods direct mans actions, and thus leave us at the mercy of fate? Where did free will come in? Alexander turns the question on its head. Although it is clear that the gods manipulate mans actions and his destiny is already cast, there is a difference between blindly and passively accepting that fate and struggling against it. The difference between Paris on the one hand and Achilles on the other. Achilles who gains glory through the struggle and can be considered a man free.
Another fact about war is how it moves from tentative – where there is still the possibility of peace, to a place where it begins to take on a life of its own and it becomes impossible to avoid. No one side may actually want war, but things go too far, actions are resented and must be countered. War backs us into a corner from which there is only the possibility of lashing back. Alexander writes:
Earlier, in vivid, dramatic detail, it is established that the Achaens are ready to flee for their homes. No one wants to be here; everyone regrets that the war ever started. Everyone wants a way out. The war seems to have gathered autonomous momentum, which, as the epic emphasizes, will end in mutual destruction.
As we know, the great heroes of both sides are eventually destroyed: Hector in The Iliad and Achilles later in The Odyssey.
Despite what we’d prefer to believe, wars are rarely fought for high ideals: making the world safe for democracy, the liberation of a peoples (though this is sometimes the case). Mostly wars are fought for booty, the spoils of war, for oil, for political gain, the acquisition of ‘stuff’. In Homer: gold, armament.
It is interesting to contrast Hector with Achilles. Hector’s not a warrior by nature, but takes up arms as a matter of honor and duty. He’s on his home turf. This is his home(land). He believes in that cause at least. If not in the cause of Paris and Helen. Like Achilles, Hector is in this position because of the actions of others.
Alexander gives the reader an appreciation of how the contemporary audiences of Homer’s world would have listened to the story. They would have been intimately familiar with the characters – unlike modern readers, who can perhaps only gain the same familiarity through study and several readings. There are many subtle references to things that happened outside of The Iliad, to things that happened before and that will (as the audience would easily have grasped) after the Iliad closes. Alexander also contrasts the epic hero with the folk-hero. This accounts for the enduring tragedy of Achilles to modern readers. Why we perhaps feel a special kinship for him. An epic hero comes from a tradition of courageous fighters, war-like heroes. A folk-hero is outside that tradition. He comes from the fringes. He’s really a reluctant warrior, not, as Alexander points out in his essence, a military figure. Ironically, although Achilles carries around with him an aura of the magical, of the supernatural, he seems more human to modern audiences. He has a sense of his motivations, he questions the gods and the authority of the political leadership. He’s a war-protesetor. Which isolates him from the general populace. He’s aloof and brooding. What makes Achilles a new sort of hero? A hero that Homer uses to take the epic tradition in a new direction?
Famously vulnerable and unnaturally defined by his mortality, raised to know the arts of healing, a figure not of men but of the wild beasts of the mountains, Achilles does not belong to the warrior company at Troy. He did not cross the wine-dark sea for the common cause, nor did he come for glory. Achilles came to Troy because he was tricked into doing so.
Alexander goes on (and here, I think, is her most important passage about Achilles)
In the mythic background of Achilles, a great poet could discern exciting possibilities: Here was a peerless warrior with a life unrelated to war, a loner and an outsider who could see in the collective military endeavor nothing that pertained to himself, the most poignantly mortal of all heroes whose business was the daily hazard of war. Here was a hero with both the nature and the stature to think and speak as an individual, to stand apart and challenge heroic convention. In the hyperstated mortality of Achilles lay the origins of something potentially greater than epic – and that was tragedy.
What did Achilles really want after he found himself tricked into being in Troy? He could have accepted Agamemnon’s bribe and not lost Patroclus, not having his life end tragically, so young. Of course there was that third option which he sometimes dreamily thought of, while at the same time not treating it as a ‘real’ option. He could have returned home, to his father, raised a family, lived a long and happy life. Couldn’t he have?
In her chapter In God We Trust, Alexander describes the gods playing with man like pawns on a chessboard for the exclusive entertainment of the immortals. This was as pure spectacle. I’ve often thought of our political leaders as playing a the same game. Certainly, they are god-like in holding thousands of lives in their hands. And in godlike fashion, they are divorced from the consequences of their decisions – rarely even understanding the human toll in blood, in flesh. It’s amazing how human the gods seems at times. They bicker like humans. they have the petty grievances that humans have, they are vindictive like humans. All of this but more so. Super human, if you will. Alexander quotes a first century scholar who said of Homer’s epic that “Homer has done his best to make the men in the Iliad gods and the gods men.” [Longinus]
Alexander also has a very perceptive take on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In many ways their relationship if the quintessential war buddy, a relationship that in a civilian context may seem homoerotic, but on the battlefield, they would die for each other, and their expressed love for each other is that same love expressed by men about their comrades, their buddies, in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Alexander nails it here.
Did we think that “ethnic cleansing was a Twentieth Century phenomena? Homer, observes Alexander, makes it clear that the end of the war means the annihilation of the city of Troy and all its inhabitants. They will cease to exist as an entity. This is Total War.
Alexander marvels at how Homer’s epic, completely understood in his day as a de-glorification of war, rebounded to be a glorious ode to war again. She attributes this to the reverence and special place it had at elite schools, at military academies, places where “the classics” were taught. What an irony. She concludes with this:
…the Iliad…never betrays its subject, which is war. Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentations, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.
I can’t recommend Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles as a great companion piece to Homer’s classic poetic epic tragedy enough. It gave me much food for thought and validated my sense of the central subject. Highly recommended. A thank you to PatD for steering me to this book.
Now. Howza bout some more music?