I had been meaning to read Homer’s The Iliad for YEARS. I read long excerpts for class and on my own, but I never actually made it through. Until now! It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience (more on that in a sec), but it’s an incredible story.
About the book: Paris has taken Helen to be his wife in Troy; she was Menelaus’s wife first, and he raises an army against Troy at the injustice of having her stolen from him. Heroes on both sides fight for honor, though Paris plays little part in the fighting, leaving the battle against the Greeks to his more capable brother, Hector. At the opening of the book, two of the chief Greeks are at odds with one another: Agamemnon has slighted Achilles, who then refuses to fight though he could turn the tide of the war. But even as Achilles holds himself apart from the battle, he does not remain untouched by it– he sends his closest companion into danger alone, and learns of his own impending fate at Troy.
There were two things about this book that combined to make finishing difficult for me: 1) I was already 100% familiar with the story so no part of it was at all unexpected, and 2) I disliked the edition I read. It seems to be a very literal translation (by Samuel Butler), which in theory is where I would’ve wanted to start and it is the copy I own. But the grammar and wording is clunky in places, and it felt like some of the artistry of the story is lost in trying to match the language so directly. None of the other excerpts I’ve read from other authors have been this awkward to read, and I was pretty close to giving up.
“On this, with fell intent he made towards the city, and as the winning horse in a chariot race strains every nerve when he is flying over the plain, even so fast and furiously did the limbs of Achilles bear him onwards.”
What worked for me in the end was to read only a couple of chapters at a time. I do plan to pick up a more liberal translation at some point with the hope of enjoying the telling of the story more, as opposed to just appreciating its bones.
What I did love about The Iliad is the duality to the story, the way that the men are fighting the war, but also the Gods are fighting the war; in some ways the players remain separate, but ultimately they’re all playing off of each other to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s really in control of events. I also find it so easy to root for both Hector and Achilles, even though they oppose each other. Both sides are humanized and compelling.
“No man may fight Achilles, for one of the gods is always with him as his guardian angel, and even were it not so, his weapon flies ever straight, and fails not to pierce the flesh of him who is against him.”
I’ve also noticed a personal change in my reading of this story. I was such a naïve reader when I first tried picking this story up; I would follow any character or any narrator anywhere, taking everything at face value. Now that I’m a smarter reader, and especially lately as retellings are being published with stronger female leads, I’ve been paying more attention to characters like Helen and Briseis, and respecting the role that the women play in such a man’s story. The Iliad is about war, a man’s occupation– the women only cry for their husbands in the background, or are offered as prizes in competitions. Even so, they have fascinating stories between the lines. A big part of the reason I pushed myself to finish The Iliad this month is that I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls within the month as well, a retelling of the Trojan war from Briseis’s point of view. (I’ll probably be reviewing it early next week.)
I know that Greek stories like The Iliad were originally meant to be sung from memory, not written and read. And I do think it’s impressive that such a long and detailed account could have been narrated this way. But I am not a listener of epic poems in ancient Greece, I am a reader in 2018. And there is something that doesn’t work for me in reading this book: the level of detail. I am very much a reader who likes to hold every detail in my head as I go, but there are so many specifics in The Iliad that no matter how many times I read it I will never keep every minor character distinct in my mind, which made this a frustrating read at times. There are 10 pages (in my copy) devoted entirely to listing the names of principal fighters on both sides of the battle. 10 whole pages. That was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.
Even after the naming of the fighters, there are a lot of individual skirmishes that occur during the battles in which the narrator describes each blow dealt by this lesser character to that lesser character, going from pair to pair, none of whom matter much on an individual basis in the grand scheme of the plot. I want to appreciate this level of detail, the way Homer shows which side is winning or losing by showing each man that stands or falls, but it’s an overwhelming amount of names.
In the end, though this wasn’t the translation for me, I was reminded of how much I love The Iliad‘s bones– the politics, the emotion, the mythology, the grit. It’s no wonder this tragic story has survived thousands of years, and is still captivating new readers all the time.
“For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great story, and undoubtedly well-crafted. I was sad to feel during this read that some of the magic had been lost in this translation, but I loved the story anyway and look forward to reading it again someday in a more artistic rendering. I’m also planning to finish The Odyssey within the year (because I read Circe a few months ago and because Goodreads won’t count this toward my 2018 reading unless I finish both books in this bind-up); it’s translated by the same person so I’m a bit wary, but I feel like I’m on a roll so I might just keep it going in the background.
- Virgil’s The Aeneid also looks at the Trojan War (though mainly the aftermath), including the best surviving description of the Trojan Horse scheme. I actually rated The Aeneid higher, but that might come down again to translation. They’re both great stories, though while The Iliad is Greek, The Aeneid features the (mythologized) account of the birth of Rome.
Are you a fan of any particular mythologies or ancient cultures?
The Literary Elephant