I first read this book long ago — we won’t say how long — and it impressed me as one of the greatest works I’d ever read. After all these years, what has stuck with me is the power of the symbolism.
Let’s start with one Greek hero, Achilles. The name seems to be a series of puns/symbols: Kleos means glory, for instance. Straightforward enough. But Achos means grief, and Leos, the people, as I understand it. (Please excuse my layman’s naivete, I am no master of Greek). And there is the first double meaning. But tehre’s more: Leos can also mean “corps of soldiers,” and so Achilles also symbolizes the grief of war. That grief can be two-sided: when his fighters act correctly they are grief for their enemies, when they behave badly, grief for their people. Moreover, maybe glory is truly just a cover for grief. And that is how Achilles is consistently depicted, as a grief to his own side, then to his enemies, as glorious, and then the truth underneath the glory. Such double meanings create deeper symbols, and slippery ones. They make the whole story a huge, sliding puzzle of fascination and fun.
Agamemnon has a girl he won in battle. But her father, a priest of Apollo, God of reason and light, comes to ransom her. The rules of piety require Agamemnon to give her up. No dice. Agamemnon and his co-ruler Menelaus, leaders of the Greeks, are ruled by their passions. So Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks, for not following reason. The interplay of god and mortal deepens the symbolism in this way all through the book. Only Odysseus is consistently pious, and he often does not have much sway.
Achilles learns of this impiety, and asks Agamemnon to give the girl up. In her stead, Agamemnon seizes Achilles’ favorite girl. A complete betrayal, that has terrible results. Achilles would fight him for her, but Hera sends Athena, Goddess of wisdom, to Achilles to bid him bide his time. So wisdom bids its time to overcome passions. So women give wise counsel to men.
And that’s just the very beginning. Such shifting of meanings… which god holds the upper hand at which point, what does that mean for the fortunes of armies and individuals, who is humble, who pious, who arrogant… resonates deeply with the reader. We know these same tensions in ourselves, in those around us; we have seen the consequences of listening to reason or releasing ourselves to our passions.
This is a very familiar story, as the author understands the same cost of battle that our soldiers still must pay today. The grief, the friendships forged, the betrayals, the chaos of battle, the loss, even to loss of self. It’s all there. It’s immediate, and heart-wrenching.
There is a reason this ancient story is still around. And it bears close study, for any writer who might want to add depth and meaning to their own tales. No one has ever done it better.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing,
P M F Johnson
Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.