The Book Club

Going to the Dogs

Dear Geraldine,

I have spent most of my time in the first two months of 2002 looking at corporate catastrophes, and it has been a relief to turn from the petty battles and betrayals at Enron and others to the grand sweep of the Trojan War.

I didn’t know that the book was written to be performed, but it does make sense to me. (It sure helps to explain those weird AAAAAIIIIIIEEEEEEEE!!!! exclamations.) I read several sections aloud to my husband last week (including that omnivorous mutual rape scene involving Achilles’ parents that you quoted), relishing the lushness of the language.

Cook’s poetic retelling begins with “Two rivers. Flowing in contrary directions,” a metaphor both for Cook’s view of Achilles and for her mosaic-structured narrative itself. The Iliad begins with the rage of “murderous, doomed” Achilles on the eve of battle and ends with the funeral of Hector, killed by Achilles. As you point out, Cook begins after The Iliad, when Achilles is already dead. Odysseus has followed Circe’s directions to find the mouth of Hell and ask the dead for help in getting home. But Achilles is disappointed in the inability of the living to tell him what he wants to know about those he left behind. He scorns Odysseus’ praise: “Don’t you know that it’s sweeter to be alive—in any shape or form—than lord of all these shadows?”

We then go back to witness the life that Achilles thinks of with such longing, from his origins, his mother holding him by the heel to dip him in the river Styx to “burn away (his) mortal parts,” through his disguise as a girl in the court of King Lycomedes, his successes as a warrior, and his death when Apollo guides the arrow of Paris to “the left heel, where Achilles’ life is strangely gathered and held.”

Like Homer, Cook is concerned with the conundrums of fate and choice. Both versions of the story say his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, told Achilles that he could decide between having a short life but being known forever as the greatest warrior on earth, or living a long and peaceful life and being known by his son but have no “name” after death. But whether we think of Achilles as driven by the gods, fate, temperament, events in his childhood, or some sort of rational decision-tree analysis, and whether the story is told by Homer or Cook, he seems ineluctably hurtled into the life of a warrior. When he does choose not to fight (and Cook emphasizes that point, telling us that “Achilles remembers he can choose”), it is not a bid for peaceful anonymity. It is a strategic move designed to punish Agamemnon for taking “the girl who was Achilles’ prize” and to remind him of just how necessary to the battle Achilles is. Although Cook says, “He is ready to sail home. To a long and nameless future,” this sounds like Achilles talking to himself about the way he would like it to appear, not what he believes. Achilles knows which fate he has chosen, or which has chosen him. Cook says, “[T]he way to make your fate your choice is to choose it, fearlessly, your lungs drinking the air. It makes the gods ashamed.”

We see very little of what we think of as freedom of choice in the story of Achilles. Long before his mother tells him he can be a warrior or a farmer, he seals his own destiny when Odysseus comes to Lycomedes’ court in search of the warrior whose contributions will be a part of his own destiny. Achilles, already revealed to Lycomedes’ daughter, who knew he was a boy when she announced that her new friend would be sharing her bed, runs off to the woods to throw punches at a bag filled with rocks. When Odysseus, unable to find the boy who can kill lions barehanded in the court, decides to look among the girls, he uses a clever ploy. He lays out gifts before them, all kinds of baubles and fabrics—and a spear and shield. Again, the illusion of choice is presented, but could anyone imagine that he would be able to resist the tools any more than he could resist fate?

Even the outcomes of the two decisive battles—when Achilles kills Hector and when Paris kills Achilles—are determined by the participation of the gods and not by human choice or ability. Those of us looking for a brilliant fight must be disappointed when the warriors finally meet. It all seems too simple and not especially brave or skilled. When Achilles misses on his first throw of the spear, Athene retrieves it for him. Hector throws his and hits Achilles’ shield. “But no god tweaks it out and he has no other spear.” Achilles has a clear shot and goes for Hector’s clavicle. In the final battle, it is Apollo who guides Paris’ spear to the one vulnerable spot on Achilles’ body.

For me, the part of the battle with Hector that is interesting is the discussion beforehand because that is where we really see what Achilles is like (no interference from the gods on this). First, Hector runs from Achilles. But then it is clear that he must face him, so he proposes that “the winner will treat the other’s body with respect and allow his people to fetch it for decent burial.” Cook has Achilles respond: “No, Hector. We meet as animals. What’s left of you will go to the dogs.” I have to give you the Fagles version here: “Hector, stop! You unforgivable, you … don’t talk to me of pacts. 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. So with you and me. … Beg no more, you fawning dog—begging me by my parents! Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw—such agonies you have caused me.” Now, that’s a warrior!

I am still making up my mind on the abrupt switch to Keats’ time in the last chapter. Do you think it works? Do you think Keats would identify with Achilles rather than, say, Homer? Or Chapman, whose translation moved Keats to write the poem with the lines I love so much: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken”?

Cook’s retelling doesn’t quite meet that standard, but it was surprising and electric and a great escape from Enronitis.