War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue

This epic retelling in verse of Homer’s Iliad is worthy of the classic.

war music

Upon his death, poet Christopher Logue left unfinished a full-length reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. His fellow poet and friend Christopher Reid applies a careful editorial hand to the papers Logue left behind to release War Music, which includes both previously published works and new material.

The result is as epic and evocative, as emotional and resounding as the original, yet also surprisingly novel. Logue employs memorable images, as when the two armies meet “like a forest making its way through a forest.” He is unafraid of wild anachronisms: “As many arrows on [Hector’s] posy shield/ As microphones on politicians’ stands”; “Blood like a car-wash.” But this is no attempt to modernize; the rage of Achilles, Helen’s beauty, capricious gods and customs of battle remain set in Homer’s Greece. Rather, it is an enrichment of a well-known and loved story, in swelling verse and with the same clever eye for tragedy and sly humor of its model.

Reid finds Logue’s “capacity for the grand conception dashingly and convincingly executed,” as near “pure Logue” as possible. His preface and comments in the appendix (where the manuscripts were roughest) offer insight for readers unfamiliar with Logue, who references Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, as well as Homer. Expertise with the original is unnecessary to enjoy this version; although such knowledge will increase the impact, the grandeur of War Music is gripping and suspenseful regardless of the reader’s background. No fan of Homer will want to miss Logue’s contribution.

This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 topaz saucers heaped with nectarine jelly.

Atlas of Cursed Places by Olivier Le Carrer

Sailor Olivier Le Carrer guides readers on an enticing tour of frightening places around the world, with maps and pictures.

atlas cursed places

Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations profiles 40 locations around the world, so that tourists may avoid risk and the adventurous may be satisfied that “many mysterious places remain to be explored and understood.” In his introduction, which recognizes Adam and Eve as the origination of curses, he describes these spots as falling into three categories: spiritual or paranormal curses; natural hazards; and human-caused threats. Le Carrer, a sailor, then sorts them by the oceans they lie nearest.

Historic religious conflicts qualify Gaza and Jerusalem: of the latter, Le Carrer writes that “mankind is capable of transforming even the most beautiful holy stories into a nightmare.” Other places are cursed by animal activity, as with Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where five million fruit bats descend annually, and Cape York in Queensland, Australia, where crocodiles reach 17 feet in length and live alongside eight of the 10 most dangerous snakes in the world. Le Carrer’s attitude toward his subjects varies, as he addresses the Bermuda Triangle rationally (“people navigate the area every day without incident, and there are often logical explanations for any incident”) but concludes mysteriously of Area 51 that “accursed nature strikes again.”

Le Carrer’s descriptions of place are designed to entertain and comfortably frighten his readers. His brief, playful evocations are accompanied by historical maps and period illustrations in this large-format book, which will please travelers and trivia fans alike.

This review originally ran in the – issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 possible explanations.

The Gods of Olympus by Barbara Graziosi

For novices and enthusiasts alike, a comprehensive and absorbing study of the gods of Olympus and how their cultural roles have changed over the centuries.

gods of olympus

From Homer and Hesiod, we know that Zeus has a large sexual appetite, that Athena is noble and warlike, that Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sexuality, that Hermes is a messenger with a sense of humor. But how did these myths and the personalities they depict survive to the present? Barbara Graziosi is a professor who’s written several academic works on the classics. In The Gods of Olympus, she directs her expertise to a more general audience for the first time, following the 12 gods and goddesses of the classical Greek pantheon from their first appearances in antiquity through our continuing modern awareness of them. Readers benefit immensely from her proficiency, which comes with a sense of humor: Graziosi occasionally appears in her own narrative, with an endearingly wry, self-deprecating tone.

The history of the immortal Olympians begins in Greece, where Graziosi explores their role in myth, ritual and cultural events. The Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle reconsidered the value of the gods, in literature and in life, and when Alexander the Great expanded his empire toward the ends of the earth, he advertised his ability to travel even further than Dionysus. By gauging his own accomplishments against those of the gods, he sought to make himself like a god even as he reconfirmed the supreme importance of the deities.

Under Alexander’s rule, much of the “known world” was Hellenized, taking on Greek–and therefore Olympian–customs and culture. During the Roman Empire, the gods’ strong personalities were merged with the traditional Roman gods’ rule over matters of state, surviving in slightly different forms that best served those in power. As Graziosi demonstrates, this is the model through which they have come to us over millennia: the rise of Islam and Christianity likewise preserved the Olympians, though it transformed the gods into demons, allegories and cautionary figures. Their original worshippers are long gone, but the Olympic gods survive, flexible and changeable but continuing to inspire art and literature.

Graziosi’s knowledge is obvious, and easy to trust, accompanied by thorough notes and a helpful appendix to the original 12 gods and their corresponding Roman identities. Her writing is accessible and entertaining, her passion for her subject obvious; The Gods of Olympus will equally thrill longtime lovers of the classics, and appeal to readers seeking a friendly, engaging introduction.

This review originally ran in the March 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 centuries (just for starters).

Antigone by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipusThis is the third play in a trilogy. Please see my write-ups of the first two: Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus.

I have studied Antigone in some depth before, also in Fitzgerald’s translation, and I enjoyed it immensely again. The action is this: brothers Eteocles and Polyneices have done battle for the kingship of Thebes, and both have been killed, Eteocles within the city walls and Polyneices, attacking from without. Now king again, Creon – uncle to Antigone, Ismene, Eteocles, and Polyneices – decrees that Eteocles will be buried with full honors but Polyneices will not, because he was a traitor who attacked his own city. You have no doubt noticed the great significance of the oracles I’ve named so far in these plays: the gods were a very real, very important part of life in the ancient Greece represented in these works. One of the deeply serious principles at play in their culture would have been honoring one’s family, and respectfully burying one’s dead. Therefore, Antigone doesn’t hesitate to defy Creon’s royal decree – on pain of death – and bury her brother. She is caught, captured, makes no denial, and is sentenced. Creon is too cowardly to order her death, so he orders her locked in an underground cell and fed; whether she lives or dies, he says, is no fault of his.

The real conflict here is between god’s man and man’s law. Antigone asked Ismene to assist her in burying their brother but Ismene refused, citing man’s law as dominant; Antigone takes it as a given that god’s law, regarding the burial of one’s dead relatives, is superior. When Antigone is caught, Ismene changes her opinion, begging to be put to death with her sister, but Antigone refuses her this honor: she didn’t earn it. Creon, for his own reasons, refuses to punish her: he has begun to dread the consequences of his stiff policy, in light of public sentiment sympathizing with Antigone’s cause. From being steadfast and confident in his decree in the beginning, Creon is increasingly worried that he may be wrong; but – in another theme of the play – he is too proud (or has too much hubris) to back down. His son Haimon is engaged to marry Antigone, and comes to Creon to ask for her pardon – not because he is “girlstruck,” but because he cares for his father’s fate. This is the first of several warnings that Creon should heed; the next comes in the form of the respected seer Teiresias. Ironically, Oedipus had failed to listen to Teiresias in Oedipus Rex, and Creon will make the same mistake here. The Chorus eventually convinces Creon to pardon Antigone and bury Polyneices, but this decision comes too late. When the party arrives at Antigone’s cell, she has killed herself; Creon is there just in time to see his son Haimon do the same. This is a classic tragedy, in terms of its fatal flaw – Creon’s hubris in thinking to rule against god’s law, and then in his reluctance to admit he was wrong and change his policy – resulting in the death of his family. Because, oh yes, his queen wife (Haimon’s mother) also kills herself when she hears the news. Whew.

To me this is by far the strongest of the three plays. I noted a number of iconic lines that I felt the need to share with you. In fact, these lines taken together serve somewhat to give a feel for the action of this play, which is most importantly internal action: Creon is stiff and unbending; Creon doubts himself; Creon reverses. It is a conflict between moral stances. Also, as you can see, there is a feminist undertone here as well – represented not least by Creon’s idiocy.

Ismene to Antigone when Antigone asks her to disobey Creon’s rule:

We are only women,
We cannot fight with men, Antigone!

Same scene, Ismene to Antigone again:

Impossible things should not be tried at all.

Creon, arrogantly scolding Antigone for what he ironically sees as her pride in disobeying him:

She has much to learn.
The inflexible heart breaks first, the toughest iron
Cracks first, and the wildest horses bend their necks
At the pull of the smallest curb.

Creon again, betraying the real reasons for his reluctance to reconsider his stance:

Who is the man here,
She or I, if this crime goes unpunished?

And even worse – still Creon:

Whoever is chosen to govern should be obeyed –
Must be obeyed, in all thing, great and small,
Just and unjust!

(Just and unjust? Did you really mean to say that, Creon?)

If we must lose,
Let’s lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we?

Haimon, giving his father good advice:

It is not reason never to yield to reason!

Just a few of my favorite lines. I hope they communicate the power and drama in this short but very moving play.

Rating: 8 birds of augury.

Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipusThis is the second play in a trilogy; see the first, Oedipus Rex, here.

At the opening of Oedipus at Colonus, 20 years have passed, during which Oedipus has wandered in exile with his daughter Antigone as faithful companion and caregiver. He initially hoped for a sentence of death from Creon, but was given banishment instead. He arrives near Athens hoping for asylum, as his second daughter Ismene appears with news. Thebes is experiencing conflict: the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, are fighting for the kingship. An oracle has instructed that Oedipus can help; but he refuses, even when Polyneices shows up to ask for his father’s blessing. Oedipus resents that his sons heartlessly allowed him to be turned out of the city. Although he wanted death in the beginning, he has since decided that his crimes were unknowing – he killed his father in a fair fight, not knowing who the man was, and defending his life; and he married his mother not knowing his relationship to her, only knowing that she was a queen whose favor he had won. And he resents the life he’s earned by his innocent crimes. At Colonus, he meets Theseus, king of Athens, who defends Oedipus and his daughters against the treachery of Creon. Following another oracle that says Oedipus will bring peace and glory to the city that offers him refuge, Theseus welcomes Oedipus to die there at Colonus.

This middle play (the only one that I had not read before) was in some ways the quietest of the three, and apparently the least known. It was followed, in my edition, by a commentary that Oedipus Rex lacked. This commentary described the principles of translation ascribed to by Fitzgerald, and gave some background information on Greek theatre and tips for presenting this in the modern era. I found it useful. I was probably least moved by Oedipus Colonus; but it did portray the loving relationship between Antigone and her father (brother) that helps establish her love of family, which we will see so strongly in Antigone. She is growing as a character; she did not speak in Oedipus Rex, and in this play she is a speaking character but still subordinate to her father’s needs. She is kidnapped, apparently helpless to defend herself, but her strength is increasing as her father’s life ends.

Rating: 5 holy places.

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, trans. by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald

oedipus“The Oedipus Cycle” is made up of three plays by Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. I cannot remember at this moment what motivated me to read or reread these plays; something else I read, no doubt. I remember Greek tragic drama very fondly from high school, where Mrs. Smith inspired me in many of my present-day literary loves (hello, Hemingway and Homer).

This triptych concerns the mythic curse on the House of Thebes, which I will retell quickly in my own words. Ahead: spoilers. Oedipus was both to the Theban King Laius and Queen Jocasta, but upon his birth, an oracle prophesied that this baby boy would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Wishing to avoid this fate, Laius took the boy out in the woods, pierced his heels and pinned them together, and left him to die. Now, this is no way to avoid the fates. Oedipus was raised by a foster father and mother who claimed him as their own, until as a young man he heard this prophecy given, and not wishing to fulfill it against the parents he knew and claimed, he fled them. Along the road on his travels, he came across an older man who wouldn’t yield the road as Oedipus thought proper. They quarreled, and fought, and Oedipus killed the older man (guess who this will turn out to be). He continues on the road to Thebes, a city-state that has just lost its king to a mysterious murder; he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, marries their queen, and happily begets four children.

When Oedipus Rex (or “Oedipus the King”) opens, King Oedipus is struggling to relieve his city of a plague. He must appease the gods, and the oracle tells him the way to do this is to finally avenge the former king’s murder. He agrees that Laius deserves justice – ironically volunteering to serve as his child should: “I say I take the son’s part, just as though / I were his son…” (as translated in my edition by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald). And Oedipus curses the murderer, or anyone who would hide his identity, with death or banishment. This will have consequences. The action of the play, the tension and emotion, resides in Oedipus’s earnest cursing of the murderer who turns out to be himself; adding incest to his unknown crimes is too much for him, as his queen (wife, mother) kills herself and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and puts himself at the mercy of his brother-in-law, Creon. Here the play ends.

There is some ambivalence, at least for me, in identifying the fatal flaw or crime of the tragic hero in this play. (It will be much clearer in Antigone.) Oedipus is indeed guilty of murdering his father and marrying his mother – terrible crimes, to be sure – but he did both unknowingly, and to his knowledge had every right to kill (in self defense) and marry. I think his fatal flaw is at least shared by his parents: the crime was in trying to avoid the predestined fate assigned them all by the gods. This you can’t do! One wonders, if Oedipus had been raised at home, how these things would have come to pass; clearly differently, as he would have known his parents. Presumably he would have been more at fault. But at any rate, the point is made that it is futile to avoid the fate assigned you by the gods. Perhaps his limited responsibility here is what earns Oedipus a somewhat reduced sentence – of which, more in the next installment.

I enjoyed this play for its feeling. The characters are passionate, emotional, and all of this is well evoked by the somewhat dramatic (but this is drama, after all!) but very understandable language. I think Fitzgerald’s translation is excellent; I find it moving, and the atmosphere of building doom and foreboding is exquisite.

Coming up: the next two plays.

Rating: 7 places where 3 roads meet.

A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics by Neil Faulkner

What an odd mix of genres this book is. It sets itself up as a travel guide: eat here, sleep here, don’t forget to pack this – but to a destination that would require time travel. As Faulkner says in his introduction, this is necessarily (by its fantastical nature!) not an entirely academic book; but he does have an academic background, and rather than wildly making things up, he does follow history & research. He just uses his imagination where it makes sense to do so, and in a way that makes sense: he makes educated guesses. (As he points out in the intro, again, he has to pick a day for each event; it is unrealistic that a guide to an Olympic festival would be unable to say when the footraces would be held.) So, note my tags for this post: travel guide; sports; historical fiction; nonfiction. It is a puzzle. A uniquely styled book.

And an enjoyable one, too. At just under 250 pages, it’s an easy read. The sections are short. There is an emphasis for most of the book on ancient Greek culture in general, and on what the Olympic Games represent in that culture (in a nutshell: this is a religious festival; sport is merely a form of religious ritual). The sport itself comes in only late in the book, and I confess that this was a slight disappointment to me: that section of the book that describes the athletic contests was very interesting to me and I wanted more of the same. But the detail on ancient Greece was intriguing, too; I have an interest in ancient Greek mythology & literature, and there were plenty of references that I was pleased to connect.

This book is probably most successful as a travel guide, which is a little awkward since as much as one might wish to, it is in fact impossible to attend the Olympic Games of 388 BC. Faulkner does a good job of elucidating the issues a person would face in attending these Games if she could. Again in a nutshell: there is no lodging, transport is difficult to arrange and expensive, food is odd and limited, and the Olympic Village would be teeming with refuse, stink, and insect activity. It would be hard to see the events on display as there are no stands; spectators 100,000 strong merely shove each other around for a view. In other words, he might have talked me out of the trip if I were planning on it. As a view into the life of ancient Greeks and especially the role of professional athletes in their society, this book was informative and fascinating. Its unique format, too, added special interest. I am bemused and intrigued. Recommended, but probably for a fairly distinct audience. I was well entertained, with my intersecting interests in sport and ancient Greece, and my tolerance for an odd format.

I read an uncorrected advance proof.

Rating: 6 events.

Ajax by Sophocles, trans. by E.F. Watling

I read Ajax from my copy of Electra and Other Plays after being reminded of his tragic story by Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. It is a short play, an easy read, but like so many of the greatest ancient Greek works, very sad.

Ajax was one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan War. Indeed, Miller says several times in her book (in the voice of Patroclus) that he would have been The Greatest if it weren’t for Achilles – kind of a poignant thought. He’s like the Jan Ullrich of the Trojan War. This play by Sophocles dramatizes the action following Achilles’s death, as known to myth. The background: Achilles quarrels with Agamemnon and boycotts the war; Greeks are dying; Patroclus goes to battle disguised as Achilles to get everybody going again; Hector (the great Trojan hero) kills Patroclus. Achilles is enraged, takes the battlefield, and in turn kills Hector, thus putting into action the prophecy that Achilles himself will die shortly thereafter. He does: killed by an arrow fired by Paris, who started all this nonsense in the first place.

With the Greeks’ hero Achilles dead, it is time for Ajax to shine. But Agamemnon chooses to award Achilles’s trophies of war, not to Ajax, but to Odysseus. Ajax is furious. And now begins the play…

Ajax has determined to kills the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus), Odysseus, and all the Greeks who have failed to honor him as he feels he deserves. He goes on a killing spree overnight. But Athena, good friend especially to Odysseus, tricks his eyes so that he ends up killing a bunch of livestock and no human Greeks. As the play begins, she is explaining this to Odysseus, offering him the view of Ajax, mad, blind, confused, killing sheep and calling them Greek names. Odysseus balks, but we end up seeing the scene. Ajax comes to his senses, sees how he has been shamed, and immediately begins planning his suicide. The Chorus (that tool of Greek drama, the group of citizens that comments on the action) and Ajax’s wife Tecmessa try to talk him out of it, reminding him of the pain his parents would feel, and the dubious fate of Tecmessa and their son if left without husband/father. He seems to change his mind, and goes offstage. But then his brother shows up, distraught, citing a prophecy that Ajax will die today. The scene shifts to watch Ajax bury the hilt of his sword, make a short speech, and throw himself upon it.

Tecmessa and the Chorus mourn; Ajax’s brother, Teucer, mourns, and plans to bury the body. Agamemnon shows up and makes disparaging remarks, commanding that the body of Ajax not be buried at all. Now, I’ve read these things before, and (ahem Antigone) you’d think these characters would have learned by now: you have to bury the dead! The gods are mightily displeased if you do not. This is an important tenet of custom and piety. Luckily, Odysseus next arrives on the scene. He had been insulting Ajax earlier, declared him an enemy, but here he lives up to his reputation for wisdom: Odysseus talks Agamemnon into allowing a reverent burial, and the grief-stricken family of Ajax carries on with their ritual. It seems that Teucer will take care of Tecmessa and her son.

I find this to be a moving story, despite the removal of centuries and the difference of cultures… I guess I’ve read enough related myth that I have learned to identify with it. I love the stories of gods and heroes, how they’re all interrelated and how the actions of one generation can effect so many generations to come. (See the above reference to the House of Atreus. That man’s impious mistake will continue to cost his offspring – just watch what happens to Agamemnon when he gets home from war.) And I mainly read Sophocles (et al) for the stories… so I had to remind myself to slow down and appreciate the language, too. I think I prefer the poetry of Homer, but I can just imagine actually seeing this performed… that would be a treat.

Rating: 6 dramatic gasps.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I read this book in a day, rapt and tearful and awed. Madeline Miller, I love you. Write more, please.

I expect that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan War, even if you never read the Iliad, yes? The Greeks sail to Troy in pursuit of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (that’s these ships!), the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her king-husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris. They fight at the gates of Troy for ten years before Odysseus’s characteristically clever notion of the big wooden horse (the Trojan horse of idiom) wins the war for the Greeks. Achilles is a hero of the war, on the Greeks’ side. He had been sitting the war out in protest against an offense to his pride when his close friend (and, most scholars agree, lover) Patroclus goes into battle and is killed. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Achilles is mad with grief and rage, about to rush into battle, kill Hector, and be killed by Paris.

That’s the background. Miller, a scholar of ancient languages (including Greek) and theatre has written a novel from Patroclus’s point of view. This gave her quite a bit of leeway, since Patroclus is not given much coverage in Homer or in ancient myth generally; she got to do what she wanted with him. Here, we see him grow up from a boy: he was a disappointment to his father, then was exiled in dishonor and sent away to be fostered in another kingdom, where Achilles is the prince and heir. The two boys form a decidedly unlikely friendship, with Patroclus the dishonored and weak following in the footsteps of Achilles, whose future is prophesied to be something enormous: he will be Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks.

Patroclus joins Achilles in his studies and their bond grows closer until they become lovers. They are not eager to join the Greeks and sail to Troy to fight for another king’s wife, but circumstances (and Odysseus, the crafty one) conspire to see them off. From there, you can revisit my synopsis of the Iliad, above – except that we keep Patroclus’s perspective, which actually made the Trojan War that I thought I knew so well spring fresh from the page.

And that is one of the several strengths of this book: that an ancient myth that is familiar to many readers, like me, becomes so real, new, crisp & juicy in Miller’s hands. It definitely made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, as well as other cited works. (Check out the Character Glossary, whether you think you need it or not, for background as well as mentions of other books you’ll want to go find.) The myth of the Trojan War comes alive with Patroclus as it hasn’t before.

Another great strength is the emotional impact Miller achieves. This book is moving, sweet, heartfelt, powerful, in its tragedies as in its loving moments – and the tragedies are plentiful. There is visceral wrath in Achilles’s mother Thetis and her hatred of all mortals and Patroclus in particular; that emotion comes through just as strongly as the love that makes Patroclus put aside jealousy and envy, makes him put Achilles’s needs before his own. I noticed that the first-person voice of Patroclus rarely uses the name Achilles, but just refers to his lover as “he” – thus emphasizing the extent to which Achilles is the center of his world.

As I said at the start of this review, I want more of this! It’s so well done. If you’re taking requests, Ms. Miller, I would like to read a book about what happened to the happy family of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus following the conclusion of the Odyssey: how does Odysseus manage to gracefully step down from power and transfer to Telemachus without sacrificing any of his machismo? Reading The Song of Achilles raised this question for me – how a king could step down and preserve his dignity and quality of life. I wonder, too, whether Penelope ever gets grumpy about all the philandering Odysseus did along his homeward journey, while she was standing strong against the suitors.

In a nutshell, this retelling of the Trojan War and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is lovely, loving, sweet and deeply emotional; it preserves the grand, sweeping scale and feeling of humanity and drama in the original, but brings it freshly alive in an appealingly different format. The Song of Achilles made me sigh and think and cry, and I wanted more when it was all gone. This may very well be the best book I’ve read in 2012.

Rating: a rare 10 loving caresses.
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