July 18, 2006

the finest funerary urn in existence

Posted in books tagged , at 3:43 pm by placeinthestars

I wanted to share this, because it knocks me dead every time I read it. Admittedly, she had one of the greatest stories ever to work with, but still, it’s all kinds of awesome:

When he has gone over it all and the remains of the pyre lie spread out like a field, Thetis walks in. She sets to work like a gleaner, her bare feet paddling in the soft dust, winnowing the ashes with her hands, gathering bones in the tunic which she holds in an apron before her. Some pieces are thin and dry as sycamore keys or the husk of a chrysalis when the winged creature has gone. She finds the long bones first: femur and tibia, the graceful fibula. The joints are still intact, cartilage shrunk like knobs of resin. Then she picks out the bones of the arms — humerus, radius, ulna. Not hard to find; they are so large, the bones which could move faster than a stag.

She holds the twelve long bones of his body across her arms like wands of peeled wood. They are curiously light now the fire has sucked out their moisture. Light as charcoal and as fragile. It will not take much to break them into dust. She sets down her load on a clean cloth before returning.

Next she finds the beautiful scapulae. So fine, they are almost transparent. She runs a finger along the delicate shelf of one, clearing it of powdery dust. This could be the beginning of a wing. The column of vertebrae, the spinal cord that threaded this necklace of armour now melted away. The circuit of the pelvis is intact. It makes a strange cincture with its buckle at the pubis. Now she collects the ribs like a precious bundle of kindling. The clavicles — first bones that formed in her womb — her womb now aching as it remembers how it was to carry him. She winnows the grey dust from the small bones that gave form to the spear-wielding hands, the swift and steady feet. She gathers them all and cradles them. They are hardly as heavy as the baby she once held. Much lighter than the armour she collected from heaven to protect him.

But the great helmet of his skull she does not take yet.


She remembers that her son wanted his bones to be mixed with the bones of Patroclus. Automedon has remembered this too and has been at work exhuming Patroclus’ urn. It is an earthenware pot and breaks open easily when struck. The desiccated bones have turned to porous fragments and it is hard to distinguish them from the other fragments — dust and bits of urn — which he carries to Thetis in a bronze bowl. With Thetis he feeds these fragments in through the mouth of the golden urn, then pours in the sediment of clinker.

Now it is Achilles’ turn. Thetis handles these bones on her own, knowing how soon they will break up and be indistinguishable from Patroclus’. She feels what each one is and was before she lets it go.

Lastly, she removes the skull from her bodice. She cradles it in her hands and then, as Automedon watches in wonder, seems in a moment to unmake it. For as she takes her hands away the skull tumbles into pieces, its separate bones revealed.

There is one bone, shaped like a bird in flight.

~pages 67-70, Achilles, Elizabeth Cook


I talked about the book here, and I think my assessment stands. It’s beautifully written, but the last section is a misstep. Still, I’d recommend it.



March 9, 2006

a sense of green, where there is none

Posted in books tagged , at 3:02 pm by placeinthestars

Recently, C. mentioned the book Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, and you know I had to read it. It’s very slim, and very beautifully written, like poetry, but not quite (also? a dizzying lack of commas, which sets my world askew).

I like the way it draws Achilles’ relationships with the women in his life – Thetis, Deidamia, Iphigeneia, Briseis, Polyxena, Penthesilea, even Helen, whom I normally despise – in brief but sharp strokes. And I especially liked the bits about Helen and Hector – how Hector is the only one with no interest in her sexually (hey, Hector/Andromache = classical het OTP, baby), and thus, her only friend, and how that parallels with Achilles’ indifference to her, that (to paraphrase) lies lightly as love upon her.

A quote:

Agamemnon had no sense then – or ever – of how well-matched Achilles and Iphigeneia really were. In spite of Agamemnon Achilles had greeted her clean heart. She decided, not her father – not even the gods – that she belonged to Artemis. She showed him that the way to make your fate your choice is to choose it, fearlessly, your lungs drinking in the air. It makes the gods ashamed.

Here in the underworld she has not gone stale. A glimpse of her and you feel you have brushed your sight against new leaves. A sense of green, where there is none.

p. 7-8

And of course, I love the Patroclus bits, slight as they are:

You would not think him helpless to look at him. He stands apart with Patroclus, his beloved through all eternity, and Patroclus – who loves Achilles but not as much as he is loved – waits for Achilles to move. His deference to Achilles is different from that of the others. They honour and respect him, keep a wise distance, because Achilles was better than all the rest. Better at being human. Fighting, singing, speaking, raging (oh, he is good at that still). Killing. But Patroclus alone is humbled by Achilles’ love. Only a fool thinks that to be more loved than loving gives power. Only a fool vaunts it and displays his own littleness by bragging to his friends and making capricious demands of his lover. Patroclus isn’t a fool. He knows that he is less than Achilles even in this. Humbled by the immensity of Achilles’ love he loves him back with all his large, though lesser, heart.


I wish there was more of Patroclus, more of their interaction while they were still alive. But I’ve wished that about everything, so… Sigh.

Also, the part where Thetis sifts his bones from the ashes? Gorgeous.

The last section is a flaw, imo, but that can be ignored, I think. I mean, okay, yes, I kind of get what she’s trying to do, but it feels… gratuitous to me. Unnecessary and, possibly, self-indulgent.

But overall, I recommend it. It’s short, beautifully written, and emotionally engaging.