(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The title page of Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles indicates that it is a novel, yet this is not an entirely accurate description. The work is also not a simple retelling of the life of Achilles, as it emphasizes the vulnerability of its title character and by extension the vulnerability of humanity in general. The expected elements appear: Thetis’s fate is to bear a child destined to overthrow Zeus, and Zeus’s determination is to redirect her to a mortal whose offspring would not pose him a threat. Even from this early stage, therefore, the vulnerability motif is plain, although it is Zeus’s vulnerability that first draws attention. By marrying Thetis to the mortal Peleus, Zeus sets Achilles’ fate.

When Thetis tries to obviate her son’s fate, which is to live either a short but glorious life or a long but undistinguished one, her plan to confer immortality upon him by submerging him in the flaming underworld river Styx nearly kills him. Furthermore, the immortality Achilles receives through this procedure does not extend to his heel, the one part of his body that remained untouched by the river. Homer’s epithet for Achilles, the “swift-footed,” thus has an irony that touches as much on that hero’s mortality as it does on his prowess in battle.

Not content with her precaution, Thetis sees to it that Chiron the centaur raises Achilles to keep him from the eyes of those who might entice her boy to an early death. In contrast to the centaur Nessos, who attempts to rape Heracles’ wife and is ultimately responsible for that hero’s death, Chiron is an educator. Since he is part beast, he can understand the bestial, and since he is part human, he can understand what it means to be humane. Thetis then brings her son to the court of King Lycomedes and bribes the king to raise Achilles among his daughters. This does not last long, for Agamemnon and Odysseus soon recruit Achilles as their most promising prospect for the immanent war to be fought at Troy.

The theme that emerges in Cook’s retelling of Achilles’ story is the ultimate futility of elaborate safeguards against the inevitable. Achilles can no more resist the need to join the Trojan expedition than he can refuse to respond by reentering the battle once Hector has killed his beloved protégé Patroclus. Fate ordains that Lycomedes’ daughter Deidamia will bear Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. The birth of Neoptolemus will provide Achilles with an agent of revenge after the weak-willed Trojan warrior Paris, he who had started the war through his abduction of Helen, aims his unfailing arrow at Achilles’ foot.

Zeus, Thetis, Deidamia, Patroclus, and Achilles are all in some way vulnerable to inevitable pain. Cook’s conception of the situation is similar to that expressed by William Butler Yeats in his poem “Leda and the Swan” (1924). The narrator of this poem asks whether Leda, the mother of Helen, realized the spirals of death that would follow from Zeus’s rape. Cook, like Yeats, is really talking about the gyres of history, series of events that inevitably cause others, all in some way tragic. Ten years of war at Troy and countless deaths, many of them foolish, follow directly from an act of lustful love. At this point the reader’s mind may move to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and his rhetorical question, “Was it worth it after all?”

With postmodern abruptness, Cook breaks her narrative to focus first on the two mythic characters who clearly loved Achilles most of all: his mother Thetis and his teacher Chiron. Cook calls these parallel narratives “relays,” by which she apparently means the gyred history that produces chains of comparable events. Ironically, Thetis hastened her son’s death by securing new armor for him, forged by the artisan deity Hephaestus, which allowed Achilles to reenter the...

(The entire section is 1587 words.)