(2001), a retelling of Greek mythology by Elizabeth Cook, tells the story of the famous antihero, Achilles, as he strives to become the greatest Greek warrior in Troy. It received widespread critical acclaim upon publication, although some reviewers criticized it for oversimplifying the Greek myth. Critics also suggest that Achilles
is more akin to poetry than a novel. Cook typically writes poetry, short fiction, critical reviews, and nonfiction; Achilles
is one of her only novels. She has a special interest in the poet, John Keats, who features in the book.
is a retelling of the title character’s life, it is not a strict retelling. By emphasizing Achilles’s vulnerability, she exposes how vulnerable humanity is in general. Retellings are a way for humanity to engage in a collective experience, allowing us to converse with each other across the ages. By sharing this retelling, Cook encourages us to meditate on our own stories and on our own identities.
When the book opens, Achilles is in Hades, the Underworld. He tells his own life story, from birth to the afterlife, musing on his identity. Looking back, Achilles knows that his fate was inescapable and that any attempts to humanize him are pointless. This first chapter connects with the final chapter, which discusses the art of reading and how characters teach us about the human experience.
Achilles is marked out as special from the moment he is conceived. His mother, Thetis, is a sea goddess destined to ruin the god Zeus. Zeus plans to marry her, but a prophecy changes his mind. Prometheus, a Titan, tells Zeus that he is in danger. Thetis is fated to conceive a boy strong enough to kill him. Zeus has no intention of dying and, instead, finds Thetis a mortal lover so that her child won’t be strong enough to harm him.
Zeus marries Thetis to Peleus, a Greek king. Their child, Achilles, is born soon after. Thetis is very protective of Achilles; she knows that Zeus watches him closely. Thetis will do anything to keep her son safe. She attempts to make him immortal by taking him to the River Styx for a blessing. When she submerges him in the river, he almost dies, and his heels are left weaker than before. The procedure makes him stronger, but all this does is draw attention from the rest of the gods who hadn’t noticed his birth.
Meanwhile, Thetis keeps plotting to save her son from an early death. She conspires with Peleus to hide Achilles in plain sight so that Zeus won’t ever find him. Achilles grows up disguised as a girl, surrounded by maidens in Skyros. Achilles is safe here, and Thetis hopes he will never know war or suffering. She assumes that, as a girl, Achilles will stay weak and tame. Fate has other ideas.
Odysseus, a Greek king, arrives in Skyros. He has heard from a prophet that a boy called Achilles is vital to a war effort. He goes looking for Achilles and finds him. Achilles can’t help but fall for the promises of glory and battle, and Odysseus convinces him to join the campaign.
Thetis grieves for her son, but she knows now that his fate is inevitable. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t stop destiny. Achilles is eventually brought down by an arrow precisely aimed at his foot—a foot weakened by Thetis’s attempts to make him strong. No hero is immortal, although we may try to immortalize him or her through storytelling.
The story of Achilles is not just about this one man. His story sets into motion a host of other historical events, many of which are tragic and violent. Cook aims to show that there is no escaping the inevitable and that every action has consequences. Achilles was meant to have a human weakness, just as he was meant to play a major role in the Trojan War.
The final chapters of Achilles
focus on other perspectives, including Helen of Troy and her take on Sparta’s fall, and Chiron, who taught Achilles. Their stories are all inextricably connected, and Cook treats them as such. She also touches on Thetis and how, for all she loved Achilles dearly, she triggered a chain of extraordinary and tragic events. She is indirectly responsible for hastening his death.
In the last chapter, Cook includes quotes from John Keats and William Shakespeare. These quotes center on questions such as why we read, why we enjoy the stories we do, and why some characters are timeless. These are questions that Achilles reflects on briefly at the start of the book. Cook leaves readers with the idea that humans are a product of their actions. We all imagine. We create our own stories, and we influence the stories of others.