No One Left to Kill

Thomas Jones

  • Achilles by Elizabeth Cook
    Methuen, 116 pp, £12.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 413 75740 4

Two destinies, Thetis said. You can choose.

Stay in the fight and be known – for ever – as the greatest warrior on earth, and your life will be short as the beat of that wing.

Or – if you can be happy without this name – live long and peacefully, farming Peleus’ land in Phthia alongside Neoptolemus, the son now growing in Deidamia’s womb. Stay, and you will never meet him while you live.

Choose.

Achilles, it is well known, chooses glory over longevity, as he must: if he didn’t, there would be no story; and therefore no Achilles, and no choice. In her masterful retelling of the myth – a short, intense account of a short, intense life, closer to being a poem than a novel: if not verse, then at least prose with blood pressure – Elizabeth Cook neatly situates this passage a third of the way through the book, in a space between chapters. On the previous page, Achilles has committed himself to Troy. What follows draws out the dramatic potential of the dilemma, despite its predetermined conclusion. The action leaps forward nine years, to the time covered by the Iliad: ‘Agamemnon pulls rank (the only way he pulls anything) and takes Briseis – the girl who was Achilles’ prize. And Achilles remembers that he can choose. He lays off his men and folds his arms.’

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