The centuries old epic about the wrath of Achilles is rendered into modern English verse by a renowned translator and accompanied by an introduction that reassesses the identity of Homer. In Robert Fagles' beautifully rendered text, the Iliad overwhelms us afresh. The huge themes godlike, yet utterly human of savagery and calculation, of destiny defied, of triumph and grief compel our own humanity. Time after time, one pauses and re-reads before continuing. Fagles' voice is always that of a poet and scholar of our own age as he conveys the power of Homer. Robert Fagles and Bernard Knox are to be congratulated and praised on this admirable work.
In 1940, four French teens and a dog stumbled upon a cave that had lain hidden for 16,000 years. Inside, they found the walls were covered in beautiful drawings of men and animals. When the Lascaux caves were opened to the public, Pablo Picasso visited them, and as he stared at the prehistoric hunting scenes, was heard to remark in a despondent tone: "We have invented nothing".
The Iliad is equally as humbling to a writer, a work as complex, beautiful, and honest as anyone could hope to achieve. The war scenes play out like a modern film, gory and fast-paced, the ever-present shock of death. Though some have been annoyed at how each man is named (or even given a past) before his death, Homer meant to give weight to the action. Each death is important, and as each man steps onto the stage, whether to his glory or his death, Homer gives us a moment to recognize him, to see him amidst the whirling action, and to witness the fate Zeus metes.
The psychological complexity and humanism of this work often shocked me. Homer's depiction of human beings as fundamentally flawed and unable to direct their own lives predicts existentialism. The even hand he gives both the Trojans and the Argives places his work above the later moralizing allegories of Turold, Tasso, or even Milton.
Of course, Homer's is a different world than theirs, one where the sword has not yet become merely a symbol for righteousness. In Homer, good men die unavenged, and bad men make their up in the world. Noble empires fall to ravenous fire and the corpses of fresh-limbed young men are desecrated.
Fate does not favor the kind, the weak, the moral, or even the strong. Fate favors some men now, others later, and in the end, none escapes death. Though Homer paints some men as great, as noble and kind and brave, these men do not uphold these ideals for some promised paradise, but simply because they are such men.
There is something refreshing in the purity of the philosophy of living life for yourself and yet expecting no entitlement for your deeds. A philosophy which accepts the uncontrollable winds of fate, and accepts that when the dark mist comes across our eyes, no man knows whence he goes.
Later traditions make other claims: that the righteous will be rewarded, that the lives of good men will be good and the bad will be punished. In thousands of years of thinking, of writing, of acting, have we gained nothing but comforting, untenable ideals? Then Picasso was wrong, we have invented something, but it is only a machine which perpetuates itself by peddling self-satisfaction.
I read and enjoyed the Fagles translation, which may not be the most faithful, but strikes that oft-discussed balance between ease of reading and fidelity. He makes no attempt to translate the meter into English, which is a blessing to us. The English language does a few meters well, and Homer's is not one of them.
The footnotes were competent and interesting, though I could have stood a few more of them. Perhaps I am in the minority. I also thoroughly enjoyed Knox's introductory essay. I would normally have had to research the scholarly history of the book myself, and so Knox's catch-me-up was much appreciated.
I found the gods to be some of the most fascinating characters in the story. They are all deeply invested (for whatever reason) in the outcome of the battle, with some favoring the Trojans and others the Achaeans. It's astonishing to what lengths they are willing to go to get their desired result. Interestingly, when they appear to mortals they have to wear the form of a human; they can't show themselves as they are. (Presumably the humans couldn't handle it.) Many of the gods are in fierce competition with each other, and their motivations seem very human: jealousy, anger, annoyance, selfishness, self promotion, etc. They scheme endlessly and fight among themselves, cowed and controlled only by the overwhelming might of Zeus. Near the end of the poem their fighting actually turns into physical confrontation, as they begin punching each other in their anger. So we have deities who are hugely powerful and majestic, but who act just like flawed human beings. They just happen to have supernatural powers. It's an interesting framework.
In some ways the human characters are just puppets in the hands of the gods. The gods can trip you up in a chariot race, fill your heart with either cowardice or battle lust, deceive you by taking the semblance of a trusted councilor, cow you into obedience with threats, pull you out of battle to heal your wounds, snap your bowstring at just the wrong moment, whisk you away from certain death in single combat (so you stay alive and your honor is not impugned, conveniently), and engage in any amount of manipulation, deception, and outright coercion to get what they want. And yet... with all this control the gods exercise (and the humans acknowledge), I still have to wonder who is really controlling whom. Why do the gods care so much what happens? Some of them even wonder about this themselves, talking about the fleeting lifespan of pathetic humanity and asking why they are investing so much energy in creatures so insignificant. And yet they continue to involve themselves in the decisive events of the times. Are they afraid of becoming irrelevant? Is their desire for worship so overweening?
The Iliad really is about war; all life is a battle and even the best and bravest can die horribly in it. Death in a thousand forms is described for us—death by spear to the brain, by spear up through the buttock into the bladder, by a spear to the liver (with the liver falling out of the gaping wound), by a spear through the eyes, by arrows, by skulls cracking and brains exploding inside your helmet, by being hit by a rock, etc. The battles rage for most of the poem and we see every kind of pep talk a commander can give, every flavor of taunt an enemy can yell, every victory and every crushing defeat. Homer describes the joy of battle and its terrible sorrows. His impartiality has allowed the poem to be interpreted in many different ways over the centuries, with some considering the poem an anti-war diatribe, with others (famously Alexander the Great) viewing it as a celebration of the courage and heroism displayed in war.
Everyone has a backstory. We'll be at a pivotal point, someone's making a speech that will decide the army's course of action, and he launches into a long tale about, say, his father's exploits or something similar. Once I got used to the device, I grew to like it; these backstories are like bonuses, little pockets of story that enrich the larger history. But they do take a little getting used to.
I didn't like the introduction by Stephen Mitchell, or his translation. First off, Mitchell reads his own introduction, and a more insipid, effeminate, weak, monotone voice can't be imagined. It seemed he was even boring himself. And it went on for two CDs! It didn't really tell me anything interesting, either. I should have just trusted my own English-major training and experienced the poem for myself, unhampered by Mitchell's extremely obvious observations.
And his translation is distressingly dumbed down. The Iliad is supposed to be an epic... and Mitchell translates it to a fatuous modern parlance that almost makes the heroic content sound comical. In a letter, J. R. R. Tolkien once demonstrated how ludicrous it is to express heroic sentiments in modern slang and clichés, rewriting Théoden's archaically flavored speech about his desire to die on the battlefield to frame it in modern terms. The example is actually quite funny, and vividly demonstrates that heroic sentiments cannot be put in modern terms; we may have the vocabulary, but our words just aren't wired for it. And the astute reader senses the disconnect at once. Mitchell's modern take on the legend is disappointing, and I'm all out of patience with the back cover blurbs that claim he has "given fresh energy and poetic force" to the work. Not so much. Render it with an eye to the poetry and the distance of it, and you'll do better.
Alfred Molina does the best he can with Mitchell's weak rendition of the poem, and reads it more like prose than poetry (which is probably a good choice). It was such a relief to hear his rich voice after the nasally tones of Mitchell.
Though this version of the epic is not something I would recommend, I'm glad to have listened to it and gained firsthand exposure to its characters and themes. I'm sure that in the right hands the translation would lend power and grace to this perennially influential work, but I was able to enjoy it, even as it was. I would have rated it more highly had the translation been better. Eventually I'll probably look into a different translation; I've heard good things about the translations of Alexander Pope and E. V. Rieu. Any other recommendations are welcome!
Thank you to Audiobook Jukebox and Simon & Schuster Audio for the opportunity to review this audiobook.
So, essentially, this is a war story. One close to three thousand years old with a mindset very alien to ours. One where unending glory was seen as a great good over personal survival or family. One where all felt that their ends were fated. And one with curiously human, or at least petty, gods. Some see the work as jingoistic, even pro-war, and I suppose it can be read that way, but what struck me was the compassion with which Homer wrote of both sides. We certainly care for the Trojan Hector as much as or more (in my case much more) than for the sulky and explosive Achilles. For the Trojan King Priam as much or more (in my case much more) than King Agamemnon. Homer certainly doesn't obscure the pity, the waste, and the grief war brings. And there are plenty of scenes in the work that I found unforgettable: The humorous scene where Aphrodite is wounded and driven from the field. The moving scene between Hector and his wife and child. The grief Helen feels in losing a friend. The confrontation between Priam and Achilles.
This is one work where translations make a huge difference. Keats poem "On Chapman's Homer" is all about how a translation opened his eyes to "realms of gold" in The Illiad he had not appreciated before. I was forced to read Homer in high school (I suspect the Lattimore translation) and hated it as boring and tedious. Maturity might have helped change how I felt on reread--but I had my own "Keats Experience" when I discovered Robert Fitzgerald's translation. I've never read the Fagles translation some reviewers are recommending, but you might want to look up various translations to see which one speaks to you before embarking on a full read.
It is not my intention to dispute the poetic skill of either Mr. Fitzgerald or Fagles, and indeed, I retain a nostalgic loyalty to the former's translation of The Odyssey, it being my first exposure to Homer. I suppose that it comes down to what expectations we as readers bring to a translation. Do we expect the translator to remain as faithful as possible to the original text, or do we want him to preference meaning over language? Do we want him to translate form, as well as words, and is that even possible? And just where does one draw the line between "translation" of form and meaning, and adaptation - that impulse to modernize?
These issues took on a more concrete reality for me a few years ago, when I was given the assignment of translating one short passage of this great work, and comparing my efforts to the three works mentioned above. I chose as my selection the lovely and deeply moving exchange between Hector and Andromache in Book 6 (lines 466-481 in the original). For weeks I walked around parsing these sixteen lines, wrestling with their meaning, examining every minute detail, from the opening correlative adverb onward.
In the end, I found that I was not entirely satisfied with either my own humble efforts, or any of the three versions I was to compare it to. A useful reminder that all translation is flawed. I did discover however, that my own instinctive approach to world literature is to attempt to approach it in its own milieu, seeking to understand its meaning while leaving its structure in as pristine a condition as possible. Homer's word choice matters, and so does his line structure.
Which brings me back to Lattimore. His meticulous translation manages to account for almost every word in the original, and to retain its basic shape and structure, while still offering a beautiful and fluid reading experience. An astonishing achievement! He resists the urge to insert vocabulary that has no direct corollary in the text, something for which Fitzgerald is notorious, and even Fagles indulges in upon occasion. I do not doubt that Lattimore is a more difficult read for the modern reader, and it is entirely possible that other versions offer better "poems." But readers who long to have Homer's form "translated" into something more palatable for the modern taste, might want to consider that part of what gives The Iliad meaning, are the culturally-specific forms and vocabulary of the original.
As for The Iliad itself, it is the quintessential expression of the heroic ethos in Western culture, and ranks up there with the Bible as a book one "must" read. Even those who object to the idea of a canon, should know what they are seeking to deconstruct.
I have a difficult time accounting for my great love of this epic poem, as I am rarely in sympathy with the hero, and do not, generally speaking, enjoy war stories. Perhaps it is the occasional flash of humanity that pierces the self-aggrandizing preoccupation with honor? The exchange between Hector and Andromache, for instance. No doubt it is also partly my appreciation for the astonishing beauty and strength of Homer's language.
Of course, for me, the tragedy of The Iliad is not the destruction brought on by Achilles' wrath, but the fall of Ilium itself, and of Hector...
o People say it is a book about anger, but it is certainly also about killing, getting killed, grasping for glory or fame, as well as loving.
o For someone like myself who finds cultural historiography fascinating, the book is an excellent resource.
o One obvious thing is that while all humans have an emotional natures it becomes equally apparent that different cultures in different times respond radically different to age old basic situations like love and death. In the book, the Greeks respond to love or loss of a loved one without any inhibition or effort at self control. By comparison, in our time the practice of keeping a stiff upper lip and a measured middle way would look anemic by comparison. It is strange that this view toward loving and loss are not covered in any of the books of criticism cited at the back of the book.
o On the topic of loss also, it is apparent that it was a totally acceptable custom and even expected for one to give oneself up to publicly and totally grieving-for as long as it takes. The men and women both are expected to weep uncontrollably.
When was the last time any of us ever did that?
In summary, I loved it and was amazed that I found it so entrancing through out.
Would obviously love to hear how those with military background respond to the book.
Achilles takes his fight to the Trojans as Book 21 of the Iliad begins with the Trojans routed, one half blocked by Hera with the other half "packed in the silver-whirling river," (line 9). Achilles slays Lycaon, son of Priam, and Asteropaeus, son of Pelegon. Then he goes after the Trojan's allies from Paeona, beating and hacking them "in a blur of kills" (line 235). The blood of the men is so thick that the river rose. But Achilles proceeds to attack and fight the river itself. Continuing until the gods recognize that this cannot stay. Poseidon and Athena come to him and advise him, "It's not your fate to be swallowed by a river:" (line 328). The gods take over from this point and the book chronicles the spectacle of battles among the gods, mirroring the battles of the men below. even through this the river remains a thread that cannot be forgotten. The Trojan's and Hector's days in particular are numbered from this point onward.
The final book of The Iliad begins with the games over and the armies scattered, but Achilles remains in grief over the death of his friend Patrocles. He slowly is persuaded that he must return Hector's body to Priam. Even as his mother Thetis mourns the future fate of her son who is also doomed to die, the gods gather and continue to argue over the situation.
The verse translation by Robert Fagles reads very well — like a novel, in fact. The rhythm, the beat is prominent, and presumably if you took the time to read it aloud, it would be powerful indeed. Despite this, The Iliad is not an easy read thanks to the almost one thousand names and epithets of characters and places about which the action takes place and through which that action is conducted. Many of these names are very familiar, some vaguely familiar, but most by far are new to us. The Fagles edition blesses us in this department by providing a pronouncing vocabulary which gives a brief identifying statement about each one. Without this or something like it, The Iliad would be a bewildering swirl of confusion to the modern reader. The Introduction, notes and maps are also helpful.
We all know the story of The Iliad — or at least we think we do. Surprisingly to me at least, after nine years of the siege of Troy by the Achaeans, it only covers a brief period of 45 days, and within that the bulk of the poem takes place over six days and nights of intense climactic fighting in which the greatest heroes on both sides are killed. A few of the most famous are left standing: Aeneas, will eventually be the lone survivor of Troy who will go on to found Rome; Odysseus famously takes another twenty years to reach his home in Ithaca; and Achilles, who has slain Troy's greatest hero Hector, is destined beyond the confines of The Iliad to be killed by Paris, the culprit who stole Helen from Menelaus and started the entire conflict to begin with.
There are no spoilers here. The destinies of the great and near great are announced early and often throughout the pages of The Iliad. The power of the poem lies not in suspense but in the drama of battle. That drama is conveyed through the driving verse which honors its heroes in the process of butchering them. Battles wax and wane with the rhythm of the poetry. The great Homeric similes, sometimes piled on top of each other, churn and froth with soaring images. Here is an example; italics highlight the "like … so" pattern:
like inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges
splinter-dry, setting ablaze big stands of timber,
the wind swirling the huge fireball left and right—
chaos of fire—Achilles storming on with brandished spear
like a frenzied god of battle trampling all he killed
and the earth ran black with blood. Thundering on,
on like oxen broad in the brow some field hand yokes
to crush white barley heaped on a well-laid threshing floor
and the grain is husked out fast by the bellowing oxen's hoofs—
so as the great Achilles rampaged on, his sharp-hoofed stallions
trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed
with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car,
sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs
and churning, whirling rims—and the son of Peleus
charioteering on to seize his glory, bloody filth
splattering both strong arms, Achilles' invincible arms."
What sets off the episode of The Iliad is a microcosm of the whole arc of the Trojan War itself. The war occurred because Paris, a prince of Troy and a guest at the home of Menelaus, stole Menelaus's wife Helen and spirited her off to Troy together with a vast amount of spoils. Most of the battling within The Iliad occurs without the aid of Achilles who ironically has been humiliated by the brother of Menelaus, warlord Agamemnon, who insists on taking the beautiful Briseis from Achilles for daring to challenge Agamemnon who has behaved badly in capturing the daughter of a priest of Apollo and refusing to give her back, thereby causing the god Apollo to shower down a plague on the Achaeans. Thus The Iliad boils down to an epic tale about men fighting over women!
Agamemnon at the beginning of The Iliad is not an attractive figure. Toward the end, Achilles' great friend Patroclus is killed by Hector and that finally brings Achilles into action, particularly as the Achaeans seem to be losing and Agamemnon sees the error of his ways and agrees to return Briseis to Achilles.
When The Iliad is reminiscing about the great deeds of one hero or another, it is quite affecting. A great deal of mythology is encompassed here, and the jealousies and machinations of the Olympians behind the scenes are both amusing and annoying.
But the battle scenes sometimes amount to a catalog of killing and brutality that go beyond the pleasurable. And while the poem as a whole makes for compelling reading, the blood and gore take it over the top. Compared with The Odyssey, it seems much more primitive in its motivation and unrelenting gratuitous violence. I am glad I read it, and I acknowledge its importance in the literary canon, but it is not one of my favorite reads. Because I personally have a distaste for this level of bloody mindedness doesn't mean it isn't worth reading. Everybody really should read it, and all congratulations go to Robert Fagles for his excellent translation.
Paris’ brother Hector is a great warrior, unlike Paris, and because of this he leads the Trojan side of the battle. The Achaeans’ greatest warrior is Achilles, but a falling out with Agamemnon (Menelaus’ brother, leader of the Greeks) over spoils of war causes Achilles to refuse to fight. It’s not until Hector kills his close friend, Patroclus, that Achilles rejoins the war to avenge his friend’s death.
Confused yet? It’s pretty straight forward while you’re reading it, but it sounds convoluted when you try to summarize it. It’s considered the greatest war story ever told and so obviously there are a lot of battle scenes.
I really liked the moral dilemmas, but after awhile the battles seemed repetitive. I loved The Odyssey, (Homer’s book that followed one of the warriors on his journey home after the Trojan War), so much because it’s one man’s journey and every aspect of his adventure is new and unexpected. With the Iliad, Homer has to convey the exhaustion the men feel after fighting the same battle for years. The fatigue was contagious and I felt it about half way through the book. Things pick up towards the end because big players are dying and you know it’s all coming to a head.
The plot is frustrating at times, because the meddlesome gods cause more problems than they solve. They’re petty and territorial and they choose humans that they want to champion and they don’t care who is hurt along the way. It also seems to remove the element of free choice in the warriors; lives. They can choose to do something, but the gods will just prevent it from happening if they want to.
After Hector is killed there is a brief mention of Helen's loneliness. She was taken from her home and is treated horribly by most people in Troy because they see her as the reason for the war. Hector was always kind to her and she realizes that none of her only friends is now dead and the loneliness is overwhelming. Even though this is a tiny part, it was really poignant to me. She’s always painted as a guilty party in this legend, leaving her husband for another man, causing a war, etc. I never thought about how terrible her life must have been.
I couldn't believe that the infamous Trojan Horse makes no appearance in The Iliad. It's my own fault for assuming it was part of the book, but I kept waiting for that part ... and then it ended. Apparently the Trojan Horse in mentioned in The Odyssey, which I remember, and then the full story is found in The Aeneid by Virgil.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is the exchange between Priam and Achilles. Priam (Hector’s father) goes to talk to Achilles after his son is killed. He begs Achilles to let him have Hector’s body. The beauty of this scene is that it strips away ten-years of war and reduces the powerful Priam and Achilles to two grieving men. They aren’t on opposite ends of an epic battle; they’re just heartbroken individuals lamenting the cost of war.
In the end, The Iliad is a must read, not because it’s the best book ever, but because it’s a cornerstone of literature. It has provided the basis and inspiration for countless war stories in the centuries since its creation. It’s one of the oldest and most well-known stories in existence and that’s not something anyone should miss. But I would recommend The Odyssey over The Iliad if you’re only going to read one, even though that story comes after this one in chronological order.
My relationship to The Iliad is far different to my late-summer, torpid tale-spinning romance with The Odyssey. It's full of things that sit funny with me: Achilles, the anti-heroic hero, spiteful, vengeful, unmoved; Zeus, tyrant yet yielding; Athena, a mysteriously fierce female in a time of spurned and maligned women.
The span of events is peculiar. We see neither the actions and consequences that launched the Achaean onslaught of Troy, nor do we get to hear the legends of Troy's end (i.e. Trojan Horse) or Achilles downfall (Paris' winged arrow to the ankle). It's assumed we already know that.
In fact, you go in already knowing everything. The weight of fate, and the way the characters--knowing full well how things are going to come out--respond is the source of the pathos. Achilles: winding tighter in rage as his days are numbered; the gods batting at Achaeans like bored housecats though they know ultimate victory goes against Troy. Yes, the petty spats of the gods echoing out in massacre of mortals and changing tides of gruesome war. Gore and detailed guts. Rhythm. Ritual. Timelessness.
As an aside: the Fagles translation is wonderful. Recommended.
1. The cliche is that the Iliad is "life is a battlefield" and the Odyssey is "life is a journey" (or highway), but this battlefield feels more like - and I mean this in the best way - a really fucking grindy day at the office, where your egotastic boss is on your back and you have this whole army to defeat in triplicate by 2:30 and your coworkers are a bunch of slobs and even Zeus, too rich and divine to bust his hump, has to deal with being all henpecked and shit - the Odyssey is allegorical and instructional and questy, and the Iliad is just "real life doesn't teach you anything and where wrestling Proteus gives you wisdom killin' dudes gives you useless glory and work sucks and war is dilbertesque."
2. The characters are so complex and psychologically real where you expect epic cutouts - Hector especially, and Odysseus maybe least of all the majors, which is interesting since he goes on to support his own whole epic, and this and the above point really make you wonder what it would be like to have first encountered the Chapman Odyssey and the Fagles Iliad, rather than the other way around.
3. Considering how pitch-perfect comicbook the dialogue is - "I, the mighty ACHILLES, will DESTROY you!" - it's funny to watch Homer conserving the popular characters, building up a secondstringer like Sarpedon and teasering you with it and all the while you're waiting for it to happen to Great Ajax or somebody all noblelike, but it won't because they are the Avengers and you would never kill them off while there's still another night's firestories in them; it's the same reason Hector never wins but there's an asterisk attached, because it's the Achaeans' comic. Also, Cyclops/Havok was totally cribbed from Hector/Paris. that was two sentences. Goodbye!
Homer basically accomplished what I imagine one of his goals was - to immortalize the heroics and feats of the warriors and document the destruction of Troy for all time. Yet for all that, the Iliad reads like a game of football with the line of scrimmage moving back and forth and the Greeks and Trojans alternating between offense and defense. At first the 'well greaved Greeks' were winning… but now Hector 'of the glancing helm' has turned the tide and most of the Greek heroes are wounded and stuck in sick bay…. and then the tide turns again at the whim of Zeus. There is quite a lot of 'this one killed that one, and another one bit the bloody dust'. There are more creative ways to kill someone with a spear than I ever imagined. Some of the details are actually fairly gory. What's confusing, I find, is that at the moment of each death Homer tells the life story of the slain, or at least the vital information such as where they were from, their lineage, and who their wife was. There's a lot of familiar names and it's interesting to see them all in one place here since they are somewhat more ingrained in my head from elsewhere. Like Laertes (thank you Shakespeare) or Hercules (thank you Kevin Sorbo) or Saturn (thank you GM). There are the other random lesser gods or immortals like Sleep (no thanks to you Starbucks) or Aurora (the borealis is on the bucket list).
Homer barely mentions the scene or uses descriptions at all unless it directly relates to the battle. Apparently the only such things worth recording was when the battle was at the Greek ships or Trojan city wall or if the gods were yammering away on Mount Olympus. Descriptions are fairly short and uniform and there is a lot of repetition. I heard on RadioLab that Homer did not use any instance of the color blue and some thought he may have been color blind. I did find, however, two instances of blue - one as "dark blue" and one as "azure" -- though never "blue" by itself. RadioLab gets a bunch of details wrong frequently anyway, which is really neither here nor there.
One thing I found interesting is the idea and extent of how involved the Greek gods/immortals were in the lives and fates of the mortals. To the point where there are teams of gods aligned loosely for or against the Trojans. This was completely excised in the movie Troy, which I watched as I neared finishing reading this. I had no interest in seeing the movie when it came out but, figured why not. I was actually impressed with how much Hollywood got right in Troy - but of course my expectations were low to begin, thinking it would be a mixed-up and mushy story. I think the biggest things they told differently was how they treated women characters (nicer than Homer) especially Briseus. Also, Patroclus' relationship with Achilles was changed, and as I mentioned, there was no depiction of the gods. Plotwise, the movie included the Trojan horse episode, which is not actually in The Iliad (it's related in The Aenid, by Virgil). Apparently my memory from elementary school did not serve me well because I was expecting to read about the Trojan Horse and didn't believe what I was reading in front of me when the book ended without it! Even went downloading a few other versions and snooping around online to verify. Just goes to show me that my preconceived notions are not always right! And that things get muddied up when stories and retellings merge. Nevertheless, a lot of the detail and direct actions and even dialogue of the characters in the movie did come straight out of the book, so someone clearly was familiar with it, which was a pleasant surprise.
Making it to the end without having once cried with sheer boredom is not so much an achievement, as it is a sign that you're trying far, far too hard.
Critiquing a new translation of a noted book is done on three levels. The first two are scholarly: the comparison of the translation with the original and the comparison of the new translation with those that have gone before. The third is the aesthetic evaluation of the work itself. My knowledge of The Illiad is non-professional. I have been fascinated by myths and mythology since I was a child reading Bullfinch at my grandmother's house. So the chance to read a new translation of The Illiad is appealing. My reading, though, is from a lay perspective.
Powell's Introduction is wonderfully informative and worth reading if you ever come across the book. In it he discusses the oral tradition of the Greeks and how poetry worked, which is similar to the blues and folk music traditions of our era. Poets (and musicians) draw on mental libraries of set pieces to tailor the performance to the tastes of the audience. But while music historians can trace the evolution and repetition of forms, phrases, and motifs for hundreds of years, not much Greek poetry exists for scholarly analysis. Adhering to modern academic standards, Powell is clear about his knowledge gaps and the liberties he has taken when fashioning this translation. All very good.
I am a bit unhappy, though, about the text, although I'll say again, I am speaking as a reader, not a scholar. Powell, in choosing an updated idiom, has, in some cases, chosen awkward sentences, weak locutions and jarring words that made my reading experience less pleasant than I wanted it to be. Rather in the way that new editions of the Christian Bible or Book of Common Prayer sound rough compared with their well known predecessors, Powell's translation sometimes seems too modern. It isn't that I require a classic to sound "classical" but sometimes an older form is more comfortable. Two examples in the text:
1. The Argives gathered. The place of assembly was in turmoil. The earth groaned beneath the people as they took their seats. The din was terrific. Seven heralds, hollering, held them back – "if you stop the hullabaloo, you can hear the god-nourished chieftains."
Here Powell makes three word choices with strong aesthetic value: hollering, hullabaloo, and god-nourished. "God-nourished" is likely to be directly from the Greek, there is no modern equivalent and, as explained in the Introduction, these kinds of descriptions flattered the audience who were themselves chieftains who would probably like to consider themselves "god-nourished." A very modern translation would possibly be "god blessed," but "god-nourished" is an excellent image.
"Holler" and "hullabaloo," though, I find odd and too informal. There was a 1965 TV show called Hullabaloo, but not until I looked it up that I realized that I had confused Hullabaloo with 1969's idiotic country comedy HeeHaw. (Hullabaloo was also a 1940 musical comedy film.) In my mind "hullabaloo" is a low class word, as is "holler," especially as a homonym of the Appalachian dialect word "holler." I find it curious that Powell, an American of similar age with a somewhat similar set of mental links, chose these dicey words over "shouted" and "clamor."
2. Another word choice I do not care for is "shivery," which Powell uses many times as "shivery", "shivers", "shivered." One online dictionary defines "shivery" as "shaking or trembling as a result of cold, illness, fear, or excitement." Well, which is it? Context does not help because fear and excitement are antonyms. Thus we can put some form of "frightening" or "exhilarating" in every instance of "shiver" and come up with a coherent sentence, but choosing the same face for each occurrence does not work out well. I am unhappy with this ambiguity.
One other point: Ian Morris does Powell no favor by using the "riddle, mystery, enigma" cliché in his introduction.
Although I have reservations about the text, these are personal and aesthetic. Overall, I think this book is a required addition to the scholar's shelf. The Introduction provides very welcome information for the lay reader and the use of a more modern idiom will perhaps make this edition more accessible to a contemporary reader or student.
The Iliad is, in short, brilliant; read it. Just keep an open eye: the is no mere adventure or fantasy story (though arguably it's excellent on that level too), and if you go looking for that, you're likely to miss all the reasons people like it. It is, no doubt, ostensibly a story about war (or at least, one man's part in a war), but as an epic it doesn't fail to address many other themes. In fact it seems on the whole concerned with the general misery of human existence, describing as it does a war fought by persons who would much rather be doing something else, goaded on and manipulated by capricious gods, who are themselves subject ruthlessly and painfully to the force of fate. Modern readers may find the intervention of the gods, and probably fate too, to be odd, but most will probably find the description of war and human conduct in all spheres to be worthy of consideration.
Besides its thematic and anthropological depth (and besides the large body of mythology for those into that sort of thing) the Iliad has two other important things to offer: poetry and drama. I can't say anything about the poetry of the original Greek, since my Greek is for now nearly non-existent, but one can't doubt that The Iliad has given many translators a good scaffold on which to build their own solid poetry. Even more significant though, The Iliad manages a dramatic quality that you might expect from a Shakespeare tragedy. It's full of hyperbolic action and dramatic monologues (and saving some of its best lines for them too), it revels in situational irony and pathos.
To demonstrate several of these points I leave you unannotated an excerpt from one of my favorite speeches in the Iliad, again in Fagles' translation (slight spoiler alert, as it were):
"'Come, Friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life--
A deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
Death and the strong force of fate are waiting. '"
As for the story itself, it largely revolves around an impending confrontation between Hector (Trojan) and Achilles (Argive), but Homer shows us the full battle. He gives us life stories of soldiers as they fall on the battlefield, lets us into the manipulative ways of the immortals as they control human lives, and slips in metaphors that reveal much of ancient Greek life. Large chunks of the text are dialogue, split with snippets of bloody deaths, but the plot moves along at a decent pace.
While Fagle's translation is not a difficult read, it did take me a while to finish the book, but even weeks later, I'm left with strong images of the Trojan war, and I think that's what Homer would want.
All in all, I liked The Odyssey better, preferring its "adventure story" style to the "history roll call" style of The Iliad. I felt that the latter was a fast-moving action story that, unfortunately, found itself embedded within a rather repetitious and verbose structure that diminished the excitement. I don't know if I'll take the second part of the advice and try another verse translation.
with an introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
composition: arguable, but let's say ~750 bce
format: 689 page Kindle e-book
read: Jan 1-23
acquired: Nov 2013, when I thought I might finish the Old Testament soonish
Rating: 5 stars sort of
It's remarkably difficult for me to formulate a response to this classic, Homer's Iliad. It's a foundational text. But it's very unfoundational in feeling.
A valid question is, is the Iliad great or just very old? And a typical answer will be that it has the whole essence of humanity within. But does it? And, if so, does Fagles' translation provide it?
It's a bit early in my thinking process to be asking these unanswerable questions. But really my question is how to approach it. I can come at it from the angle of history and the migrations of and clashing of peoples, from heroic imagery (or if you like, hot muscular long-haired blond men in shining golden-ish colored bronze armor and weaponry), at the style (and it's clash with the biblical style), at it's construction (which I'm reading about in Adam Nicolson's Why Homer Matters). And there is the translation issues. And eventually my response. What is my response anyway? I can think separately of all these (overwhelming) different things, but I'm having a lot of trouble tying it together into something coherent. It's like the different parts of my brain not only refuse to align, which is normal, but refuse to concede. Each aspect is holding its ground, and a mental stalemate conjures up, uselessly.
Adam Nicolson might like me to see this way. The Asian hordes rushed to the ends of the steppes an converted their nomadic culture to one that sea raiders with a home base. The combat hardened and ruthless pirates clash into the settled ancient cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, and made a living feeding off them. But the ancient cultures and their cities, with all their wealth and allies and mercenaries, with all their procured beauty, are at heart susceptible. At some point you can't buy off unreasonable and heroic passion. The bronze barbaric hordes will come even if we like to image them quite beautiful.
"As ravening fire rips through big stands of timber high on a mountain ridge and the blaze flares miles away, so from the marching troops the blaze of bronze armor, splendid and superhuman, flared across the earth, flashing into the air to hit the skies."
Through time, as these cultures clashed, stories evolved in song, and they later began to standardize, acquired an author and authority, and become our Homeric epics. Or maybe there was a Homer.
So, what is in these stories? Their origins date to one side of the Greek dark ages, the height of bronze age Mycenae culture circa 1250 bce. But their composition is dated to the other side, well into the iron age, to the dawn of the classical Greek world, around 750 bce. They preserve within what were otherwise long lost aspects of culture and warfare, including the bronze itself, as well as associations with an assortment of other largely lost stories. They create an oddly comedic mythology of quarreling gods who can charm, strengthen and lure humans, but also be hurt by them. And they create a heroic myth that is ultimately a tragedy, but also a blood and gore soaked work of entertainment. And that is one of the oddest things about the Iliad to me, that it is ultimately entertainment. And you can build it up as much as you like, but, well, doesn't that limit it? I mean is it ultimately an amusement, a distraction?
I've probably lingered on long enough, and I still haven't mentioned Achilles, Hector, the woman who launched those thousand ships, or even a single god by name. There is plenty to into read in how Achilles, in slaying Hector who wears his armor, is symbolically killing himself, and at the same time suicidally walking into his prophesied doom. Really I haven't touched on the story. Achilles rage, Agamemnon's foolish bravado, Odysseus's practical cruelty, Hector's limitations, the women in Troy who are on the verge of become subhuman possessions of the barbarian conquerors. In book one Athena seizes Achilles by the hair to “to check your rage, if only you will yield". Of course, he won't really do that. The battles must be fought and civilization must fall to reality.
Since I don't, I judge little harm was done in my case. Like the Bible and Shakespeare this tale of men and gods permeates Western culture, but if you've no familiarity with it at all then you might want some context. The Iliad only covers two months of the Greeks' decade-long seige of Troy, and is neither the beginning nor the end of that event. The warriors are larger-than-life, there are powerful interferring gods supporting either side, violent combat is graphically described, and every death gets its eulogy. I always sympathize with the Trojans, which is remarkable in light of the Greek author.
A number of the differently spelled names in this edition threw me off. Hera becomes "Here" (leading to many initial misreads of a sentence where I mistook the noun), and Athena is similarly rendered "Athene". Where I expected a Greek named Ajax, here he is "Aias". Prose emphasizes (introduces?) flaws, at least by modern standards: characters bursting into speeches at the most inopportune times, curious repetitions/echoes, lengthy descriptive asides. The battles are mostly an unlikely sequence of staged set pieces that don't transmit the chaos and bewilderment of an actual field of battle. At the conclusion there is a miniature Olympics I wasn't expecting that has some farcical moments. The story is still epic and entertaining no matter how it's told. It's something you'll want familiarity with if you're a student of Western literature, but read a poetic version if you can.
The story line was very addicting; indeed, I kept waiting and waiting for Achilles to make peace with Agamemnon and get into the fighting. I was impressed with the true manliness and might of Hector. My heart grew heavy reading the account of Patrocles' death. I even felt for poor Hector's dad when he, an old man, had to risk his own life to claim the body of his slain son.
I also appreciated the strong emphasis on the importance of morals and ethics, even on the battlefield (and even if they don't quite match my own). In today's American society, where for so many people the idea of ethical behavior or objective morals is foreign, it was refreshing to see men willing to die for their beliefs in an honorable way. Indeed, I kept getting the distinct impression that this story was crafted, in part, to teach young Greek boys how to be upstanding men in their culture. (Perhaps someone with more of a background in Homer than I have can confirm or deny this thought.)
All in all, this was a compelling, instructive, manly, bloody, and difficult read. I'm glad I read it, and I can see why it has endured throughout the millennia. Like many classics, I think it will take me several more readings and a lot of contemplation, though, to really understand all that is going on in this story; and in so doing, I have no doubt that it will help me to understand myself better, as well.