Sunday, September 2, 2012

war music, not love songs (christopher logue)


war music is one of the books we'll be talking about this semester, and i have to say i am really enjoying it. this is english poet christopher logue's rendering of parts of homer's iliad (it contains books 1-4 and 16-19). it's pleasantly straightforward to read, with no attempt at archaic language etc, and i particularly like the little anachronisms and unexpected images. even though i am not in the least bit interested in war-themed stories, this book drew me in.

it's beautifully written poetry; at times it feels old, at times new:

Fearful as the toad in a python's mouth,
The priest, as if the world was empty, walked away
Beside the sea, then hung his head and prayed
Wet-cassocked in the foam

and in contrast, there are passages like this:

The gate. 
The compound.
Achilles' tent, a moonlit, Cubist, dune.

what is this story? here is what i've pieced together: the greeks have been trying to conquer troy for years, without success. they are tired of war but cannot return empty-handed, the price paid is too high.

achilles is a key player - not only is he handsomeness incarnate, he is also their bravest warrior. the greek soldiers are cursed with the plague because their leader, agamemnon, has taken the trojan seer chryses' daughter, chryseis, and refuses to return her even for great treasures.

seeing there is no choice (people are dying left and right) agamemnon has to give in and return chryseis. however, his pride is hurt and he will not give up a beautiful woman without getting a replacement. he chooses achilles' beloved 'she', briseis.

briseis is taken from achilles
achilles speaks up because he feels unfairly treated, and finally announces he will no longer fight for agamemnon but rather go home. this is unsettling for the other soldiers because achilles inspired a large part of their confidence in battle.

there is another love story - that of helen of troy, who is wife to the king of sparta, menelaus. she is said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and so paris - who has been promised the most beautiful woman in the world by aphrodite - takes her to troy in menelaus' absence,  giving the greek soldiers a reason to attack the city - they are honour-bound to defend menelaus' and helen's union.

paris with helen
whether or not helen went willingly i'm not sure, and accounts vary. the illustration above suggests she did, though many others do not.

the leaders of both sides - tired, as i said, after so many years of fighting - decide to enter into a truce: the war should be determined by a one-on-one fight to the death, one greek against one trojan. the winner gets helen. of course menelaus is the obvious choice for the greek side, since he is helen's legitimate husband, and so it is determined he is to fight paris. menelaus clearly has the upper hand in the fight, but paris has aphrodite on his side. both survive.

the gods, who look down from their clouds every now and then to see what the humans are doing, mess things up again here: they cause a trojan to break the truce (in a very painful way btw). of course the greek won't have it - general slaughter and bloodshed commences.

patroclus, who is close to achilles, realizes they cannot win without him. when it is clear achilles won't budge, he asks to use achilles' armour, and achilles allows it, on the condition that patroclus only drive the trojans back, not try to take troy. dressed as achilles, he leads his men against the trojans.

they kill many. they drive the trojans back. patroclus will not stop there - something has snapped, and he goes off toward troy to continue his killing. needless to say, since he broke his promise and also since apollo is around (who loves troy), patroclus is killed. trojan leader hector takes achilles' armour off the dead warrior's body - he is mesmerized by it.

achilles is devastated when he hears of patroclus' death and promises vengeance. he has a talk with agamemnon the king, explains he is no longer angry, and the king admits he may have acted unfairly. he is willing to return briseis to achilles if he will return to the battle. of course he will.

with achilles, anything seems possible: when he puts on his new armour (magical no doubt, and given by his mother from the sea) the scene is like the entrance of a super hero:

Though it is noon, the helmet screams against the light;
Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen
Across three thousand years.

achilles has nothing to lose now. troy will fall.

silver surfer, by cinar (deviant art)

on a side note, i thought this description of odysseus was interesting:

And then,
With his big, attractive belly rounded out
And just a trace of dark grey hair
Ascending and descending to his cloth

Odysseus (small but big)

he shows up in an earlier scene too, where he is part of a group of warriors listening to the king's account of his dream that they should conquer troy by total war. there is a pause in the king's story, and logue creates this beautifully:

'Make total war today, hero and host, as one,
Troy will be yours by dusk.'

The dawn wind pats their hair.

Odysseus gazes at his big left toe.
His toe. 

anyway, i can recommend this book for people like me, - not necessarily into history and all that war, but interested in people and words and images. the characters logue presents us with are credible and interesting. this is a great re-telling of the story, or re-writing, or whatever you want to call it.

i can see why those keen on historical accuracy may be alarmed by this book, (which is one of several btw, though they can stand alone) but for anyone else i think this might be a fine read.

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