How Do We Win Glory?

I’ve cried over three books in my lifetime.

1. I can’t actually remember the book.  I remember just before the part that stirred tears, I was lying on my bed in the afternoon and humming to myself.  My legs were cradled up, bent like a church spire and I think I was humming out of fear of what the next few pages held.  There was definitely love lost.

2. Of Mice and Men, Summer of 2012.  Unfortunately, I posted a selfie of these tears somewhere in the bowels of this blog (bu-dum-cha).  I may have been alone in not seeing that ending coming.

3. The Song of Achilles, tonight. Obviously, teaching The Odyssey for the past four semesters, I know the story of Achilles, but it still hurts every time you read it.  And believe me this time it FREAKING SUCKED.  I had to force myself to keep reading this afternoon because I so didn’t want to come apart at the deaths.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Let’s start at the beginning.  Arguably, and believe me I will argue, Odysseus and Penelope are the greatest love story ever told.  Yes, all of you who hate on Odysseus because he slept with a few goddesses, I see your points coming, however, you’re just wrong.  They are the most faithful and outlasting couple of any generation.  They are a true love in literature.  He built a bed out of a living tree for her, for God’s sakes.  He picked her over her sister “the face that launched a thousand ships” and picked her for, what’s that you say, her cleverness, or in other words, her intelligence.  Back then, women could be plucked for their loins out of the fields of ravage and no one would say anything about it.  If you bedded her, she was yours.  Poor Odysseus hears the speech of veiled Penelope and he is forever indebted to the “second prettiest” sister.  He tricks goddesses to get back to Ithaca, land of rough hills, and herds, and Penelope.  There aren’t many love stories that can keep par with Odysseus and Penelope.  I dare authors to try.

Madeline Miller must have heard me.  I was invested too much in Patroclus and Achilles, so much that I actually grieved when Patroclus died.  I had to call my boyfriend I was so devastated and he’s probably beyond sick of hearing about this book.  I’ve basically told him the whole story as it was moving along.  He would be googling the “true” history while I told him what the book said and we both agreed that Madeline Miller got pretty damn close to the original story.

Odysseus and Penelope Reunited by Romare Bearden (The Black Odyssey-which is amazing if you haven’t looked at it, I use it every year with my students).

Maybe this book makes us ask ourselves what is it that we will let die for glory.  Who will we step on.  Who can stop us and what can make us go on.  I often ask a best friend of mine how she can be an atheist.  I am not an atheist (obviously because I’m too wrapped up in what’s out there, something in those constellations that make bright spots in the bruise of our sky), but I can’t imagine not believing in anything.  I wouldn’t know what the point of living was for.  Then again, is living one giant list that we’re ticking off on how successful we are (I think social media would have a good argument that it is this list).  Yes, I have a job.  Yes, I’m successful at my work.  Yes, I have a boyfriend.  Yes, I came from a great family.  Yes, I own a house.  If this is what everything amounts to in our life and then we’re shielded in black, I’m not at all sure what my purpose was here.  How can there not be something.

Fan art on Deviant Art by Shairin

In Ancient Greece, there were a plethora of Gods, a small collection of immortals with totems and symbols, expecting sacrifices of blood fruits and slit throats slipping on marble.  Their faces were to be erected in temples where high priestesses licked at their stone feet.  And they controlled every aspect of their created game.  One might unleash winds, while still others appeared at boat masts and read fortunes to bearded men.  This was life.  I would be scared of the sudden flash of Thetis, Achille’s mother, and her bone white china skin, but this was the accepted culture of Greek tradition.   I’m just not sure how one becomes a hero in this tradition.  Achilles is foretold to be the greatest warrior of his time, but pride kills him in the end.  If this is what fame amounts to in the time of the Greeks, then what the hell does fame amount to now? Is it the amount of hours you appear on reality television in stiletto heels.  The amount of drama per capita you create.  The hearts you break and the story these men (or women) tell after you’ve made your chink.  The amount of school children you kill.  The amount of skin you show.  The amount of lipstick glossed hard on red butter of your mouth.  I’m scared to know.

This isn’t the point though.

Achilles and Patroclus, Sosias Painter from about 500 B.C. in the Staatliche museum in Berlin. (Wikipedia)

The point of this book is that inevitably what made Achilles a hero was not that he splayed Hector and drove him around on a cart of wild horses, but that he loved.  And in this story by Madeline Miller, he loved a boy.  I don’t think either characters, Achilles or Patroclus ever becomes a man.  Now, writers have claimed for years that Achilles and Patroclus had a relationship.  In the Iliad, he’s called the “best-beloved of his companions” and Plato argued that they slept together multiple times in “Symposium.”  Truth be told, I want to believe that they were in love after reading this book.  I was so moved by their love that I couldn’t handle Patroclus’s death because I knew that Achilles would absolutely maul someone’s face and rip his own heart out after he saw that Patroclus was carved open by Hector.  This book was so well written that I could taste Achille’s grief.  I didn’t even need to read his killing rampage.  Just my imagining of his grieving face made my face break open.  I was balling like a child for the next ten pages because I couldn’t get over Patroclus just floating around and making commentary on how stricken Achilles became.

I was in love with their love, like a fifth grader writing a valentine.  In the beginning, I was enamored with their sweet learning of one another.  Each leaving everything on the table.  Patroclus says many times in the story (he’s the narrator) that they were always honest with one another.  And they were.  Disgustingly so.  I found myself wanting a love story like Patroclus and Achilles.  Lucky for me, I have one, (Insert wink face here), but Patroclus was so supportive of Achilles and his wicked pride, and Achilles was so supportive of Patroclus’s normalcy.  Not only that, but the writing in this book was absolutely beautiful.  I was so caught up in the story, I didn’t have time to highlight anything because I just wanted to keep reading.

An anatomy study by Hugo Morais, based on the sculpture by Master Ernst Herter, Click to be taken to website.

A lot of people might turn away from this book because it is essentially about a homosexual love affair, but I’m begging you, don’t do that.  This book could de-homophobe a generation, it’s that beautiful.  In fact, they should sell it at Gay Rights parades because it plainly proves that love is just love no matter what form, shape, labels, or rules society puts on it, it will flourish, the first dandelion of spring being blown by the mouth of a beautiful woman. Love is truth and truth isn’t judged by right or wrong, but by whether it’s generous and whole.  No one who reads this book can look at love in any other way.

I love the fact that both remain boyish for so long in the novel.  Some reviewers complained that Achilles wasn’t prideful and angry soon enough, but aren’t we all looking for dynamic characters here?  Achilles is a boy who is in love with a boy who has had hardly any successful familial relationships because his father only sees him to tell stories, his mother is a wandering and angry sea nymph who had him out of rape and Chiron, who is the Atticus of this story (the saving grace, the wise mystical creature) who he is taken away from to fight in a war at FOURTEEN.  He’s fourteen when he originally goes to war.  All he’s known is the curve of Patroclus’s spine for his teenagedom and he has to learn quickly how to entangle with men.  Who can expect him to just stand on the bow of his ship and ask his men to kneel down before his greatness.  He has to learn the filthy word of men (with far too much power in my opinion, Agamemnon, I’m looking at you, sir).

Time Photo Essay

Time Photo Essay

Last thing I’ll say about this I promise, but Martin Luther King Jr. is featured in a photo essay in TIME magazine.  It’s a beautiful collection of photos about his life as a civil rights leader, but one of the photos is particularly striking.  King is talking to his daughter over a kitchen table and she is adorable.  She has bows in her hair, a perfectly buttoned dress on, and I imagine her fingers were just idly drawing shapes into the table.  The star image of a girl asking a favor of her daddy.  In the paragraph written below the picture it says that King was informing his daughter why she couldn’t go to the local theme park … because she was black.  It’s devastating reading the paragraph and looking at this darling child when she is just first learning that because of something she can’t control, she’s been dubbed “less than.”  I’ve always wondered how we learn what our worth is, and at what age.  Everything Martin Luther King Jr. stood for and yet he was forced to inform his daughter of her own status within society.  She’s just a girl, but she’s burdened with the adult world when there are still bows in her pigtailed hair.  This is how I feel about Achilles and Patroclus in this story.  They are burdened with the adult world and the only thing keeping them young and honeyed is each other.

There’s very few times in this world when we get to see who we are from an outsider’s perspective.  The true love aspect of this novel is that Patroclus and Achilles were able to keep each other partially hidden from these outside views and strictly believed in one another.  Probably glory is just to be loving and let others love you in return.


23 responses to “How Do We Win Glory?

  • Jenny @ Reading the End

    ROMARE BEARDEN!!!!!!!

    Ahem. I love Romare Bearden.

    I am also fascinated by this claim of only ever crying thrice at books. I don’t cry at books very often, but I think more than thrice. Are you counting, like, teary eyes as crying? Or it only counts if more than one tear rolls down your cheeks? Have you read The Book Thief?

    • Cassie

      I have read The Book Thief and I thought it was overrated AND I read it before the hype in America because I read in Australia! Yay! And obviously I’m a dreadful person. However I have used excerpts of it to read with my students and I think I’m going to try to read the whole thing this coming semester. Yessssss!

      I’m counting like tears at all. I’m just not a very huge cryer and I have to be really emotionally involved in the characters to cry. It’s not the plot that makes me cry :) what’s the last book you cried over?

    • Cassie

      Let me rephrase what I said last comment. I really appreciate The Book Thief. I think it’s beautiful and heartfelt and heartbreaking. I like it enough to need to share it with my students, but I didn’t cry when I read it.

  • stim

    Your review reminds me of Ms. Stim’s excitment while reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, another fictional work derived from an ancient tale.

    If my body was indestructible except for my heel, I’d be the greatest warrior of my day, too. For me, the bravest (or most stupid) warriors in The Illiad were the poor Greeks grunts who kept battling on the field after Aries got off his ass and literally joined the fight on the Trojan’s side. “Oh look, Adrian. The God of War is slaughtering 20 of our fellows with each swing of his sword. Let’s go fight him.”

    • Cassie

      Haha I couldn’t agree more about Aries. He literally pinched the back of Patroclus’s armor and threw him off a wall. Hello, you’ve been fighting for nine years already, but yea… The gods took sides and were still here drowning in all the chopped up bodies. You’re so right, haha.

  • Bea

    I loved your review. When you are enamored with a book, you aren’t afraid to let it all hang out, and when you do this, we are all pulled in, and can’t wait to read that book.
    Your last little piece about Martin Luther King and his daughter really touched me today because I had a moment with my grandson that was along the same line. I took him to an old Mansion, the Mordecia House in Raleigh. For those that don’t know, he is 5. The tour guide led us through the main house telling us about the past. She brought up slavery, and he immediately jumped on it. What did she mean? How could this be? I shushed him, telling him that I would explain after the tour. How do you explain such a horrible time to a 5 year old child, how much do you tell, what to say, what to say! During our conversation he said, “Couldn’t somebody just call the police?” And now I have to explain that it was all legal at the time. So difficult to explain, and so sad that it ever happened.
    I will stop rambling. Thank you for another great review and also thank you for that last line, “Probably glory is just to be loving and let others love you in return.”

    • Cassie

      My nephew is way too young to be pondering slavery, I’m not ready for him to see the adult world yet. This scares me. Ah! Love you, momma. Thanks for teaching the inquisitive minds of our family for so many years, a true matriarch.

      • Elisa

        Non-white children ponder it–living it with every breath, and all of the bigotry that surrounds it from day one.

      • Cassie

        I thought about this just the other day when I was looking at iPhone Emojis. There are no Emojis “of color.” I don’t really like how that’s phrased, but that’s the best way to put it. This isn’t racism as I’m sure that’s not the intention, but it is this subconscious idea that people only what white Emojis or Emojis of other ethnicities aren’t welcome. Very strange. Then I was trying to think of other places/ways that this happened and I haven’t come up with any, but I’m bound to. One of my newspaper students is writing an article about it. The hidden ways we discriminate (in some ways not even meaning to).

        It’s hard for me to take your comment because I know people of all races who have never thought about racism, just because they lack that … it’s not empathy, it’s another word I’m thinking of. Sometimes I look at my students and I know that it has never crossed their mind. I also don’t like the idea of “non-white children” as if in all cultures and places being “the white ideal” makes you better because that’s not true. There are places when being “white” can cause you to live with it as you say “ever breath.”

        I also think this would be an interesting discussion if I weren’t living in the South. I’m going to leave that one at that.

        I think with this comment I just felt like you judged me for not wanting my nephew to already be opened up to this world of bigotry as if he should be because “Non-white children ponder it.” I would rather live in a world where no child had to ponder that, and I’m working towards that goal everyday when I make sure my students feel loved and cared for because they are all brilliant, hilarious and the future regardless of the color of their skin.

      • Elisa

        No, there was no judgement, just a presentation of a ‘truism’ that I have experienced with my own biracial children, the county in which I grew up in (there are seven registered hate-groups there), and from experiences from Cultural Diversity and Social Justice office and the role one of my daughters plays there. My words are never meant to take away an individual’s right to choose. If my words cause a person to check themselves and the why behind what they said or how they feel after interpreting my words, then perhaps I will know them better as I walk alongside of them.

      • Cassie

        On a not serious toned note, biracial children are the most BEAUTIFUL children. I’m sure your children are breath-taking. My best friend is biracial and I think he actually pondered it a lot more for being biracial because he wasn’t sure how to “label” himself. I think it’s interesting that the US society is SO insistent upon the black and white, there is no gray here. No one should be “biracial” they need to be “black or white,” “Native American or White,” etc, and no one can be “bisexual,” they must be “gay or straight” as if there isn’t a spectrum on everything. I believe in this spectrum that everyone falls somewhere on this line. I have Native American in my background, but from looking at me you would never know that, I look totally pale and Irish. I work in a community with a large Native American population and it’s about 50/50 black/white. My students often slur against the Native American kids and I find myself almost at an argument in my head which I have to transfer into an intelligent way to tell that child that they can’t say things like that, and they need to read more in order to find the truth to what they say or the lack of truth.

        I DEFINITELY see racism everyday, and just plain hatred. I asked my students the other day “If someone wears the same sweatshirt everyday, what would you think of them?” And they immediately said, “They’re nasty,” and I was like, “Not one of you would think they’re less fortunate?” It’s definitely difficult in my county because it’s the highest poverty county and there is NO middle class. The upper class and lower class are not divided by race, but if you walked around the community, you might believe they are.

        I’m not sure which way is right – to teach more history for students to learn these backgrounds and the history of their belief, or to stop reiterating the differences between cultures. For instance, I’m upset that they’re building an “African American History Museum in DC” why can they not just add a building to the “American History Museum” and include African American’s in THEIR american history. Native American as well. Every American because the only people that were here at the time before everyone flooded the beaches were Native Americans so we are all from somewhere else. It’s just….humph.

      • Cassie

        PS. Thank you for “checking me,” I’m glad I get to “walk alongside” you, even if it’s through the interwebs.

        PSS. How did you like Thinking Woman’s Guide to Magical Thinking?

      • Elisa

        I LOVED IT!!!! It is on my keepers shelf. I even think it’s pretty, which kinda makes me gag, cause I’m not usually like that–ew girly hehehe.

        And my girls fight about not pointing out any differences over creating such museums or being a member of Black Student Union–or even the existence of one. One daughter says: “there is no Italian student union” then she rolls her eyes and snorts and states that making oneself separate is racism and then she uses a few uhm choice (unsavory) words. I am half lakota but, due to adoption I am not enough of anything to go be who I am, I have learned to laugh at this. Heyoka! wriggle wriggle

      • Cassie

        Technically, you can laugh at all of us for constantly being obsessed with who we are based on where we were born. You get to figure out who you are based on who you learn to be. I think that would be really difficult though, I can’t imagine. I’m mildly, maybe not mildly, obsessed with my grandmothers so I’m not sure who I would be without stories about them.

        So happy you loved that book! I can’t wait for the next one, we will have to read it together and talk about it!

        Your daughters sound like smart women and any good argument needs a few choice words, it shows passion. :)

  • Drew Jacob

    “In Ancient Greece, there were a plethora of Gods, a small collection of immortals with totems and symbols, expecting sacrifices of blood fruits and slit throats slipping on marble. Their faces were to be erected in temples where high priestesses licked at their stone feet. And they controlled every aspect of their created game.”

    *raises hand meekly*

    I’m a polytheist. If I may, that’s a pretty mistaken view of what the ancient Greeks believed… though an understandable one, given that most of our education on Greek religion is shaped by Victorian Christian scholars.

    The ancient Greeks were taught to believe these stories were metaphors. It’s the opposite, in a way, of Christian fundamentalism: in a hardcore Baptist church, you’re a sinner if you don’t take scripture literally; in an ancient Greek temple, you’re a simpleton if you do.

    Ancient Greeks didn’t believe, for example, that Hades kidnaps girls and forces them to marry him. They did believe that a story of kidnapping a young flower-goddess makes a pretty good allegory for winter.

    Anyway.

    I’m just not sure how one becomes a hero in this tradition.

    You might really enjoy reading Ari Kohen’s book Untangling Heroism, especially the chapters on Achilles and Odysseus. Unfortunately it costs $100 (textbook), but you may be able to read those parts at the Google Books preview I just linked.

    He argues there were two kinds of heroism in the ancient world, one exemplified by Achilles and one by Odysseus. And he suggests that Socrates should be the third kind.

    • Cassie

      I take the view that these were stories that shaped lessons and morals. The same way that I think The Bible is a collection of stories to teach lessons and morals regardless of if one believes them to be true or not. I’ve heard both sides of the argument from yours to the idea that this was a belief in their culture and I find nothing wrong with that belief, however, it’s hard for me to believe that they just thought these were metaphors and allegories when sacrifices and temples were involved. I don’t necessarily believe any religion takes scripture literally, but then again I don’t think Ancient Greeks took scripture literally. I think it’s hard to say argue that they didn’t believe these gods were a religion when most of what we have to go by today believes spouts that they did. This is one of those times I’m going to agree to disagree.

    • Cassie

      I also think that paragraph was taken out of context (literally and to what I believe about them). This is a part of the novel Achilles that I used as an example of how gods played roles in Ancient Greek stories.

    • Cassie

      Ps. The book you mention, I believe is one hundred percent right. It’s the three aspects of a human being; physical power, mental power, soul power. I think there’s a much more educational or academic way to say that, but I don’t have it now. I’m sleepy haha

    • Cassie

      Okay, last reply I promise. I’m curious about your polytheistic religion. I’m curious about how it functions and is taken in today’s societies and what you studied and what aspects are from what cultures. I’m sure the answer is longer than a blog comment. WAY longer actually, but now I’m wondering all of these things in early morning. Ah!

    • Elisa

      Thinking about the bard and oral his-stories passed along. Greatness and uses for aggrandizement, to be best, to be remembered, to create action or movement in thought or in deed. If I endlessly seek truth, I will find it. No matter the truth in within it. I will seek to prove it and to pass it along as true. It takes belief and there are many many ways to grow belief. Intention be damned or glorified. Here too then comes into play translation, control and manipulation of his-story, the-story is possibly better but doesn’t feel as nice in the mouth. Perhaps one might be interested in a post on Hermit’s Thatch entitled Translation?

      • Cassie

        I’ve actually studied translation. I think it’s best to read multiple translations of the same work to get the picture that is most closest to the truth (a hodgepodge of translations that help the reader determine the author’s true meaning, which we will probably never know unless we can hear it from the author’s tongue and know how he proposed to read it to a crowd and whether that crowd took it as metaphor or exact truth).

        I like the statement, “It takes believe and there are many many ways to grow belief,” I agree with what this says. I’m not sure what the intention of the stories was for that culture since there can be so many different interpretations, but I believe that they believed these stories helped create morals and a religious basis. It is all based on intention though, what was intended for the audience, what was intended by the writers’ hand and what was it intended to convey to the readers/listeners. That, I can’t always answer since I wasn’t there and I am not in their head.

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