When the Fates — or, the lovely people who choose Classics Club spin numbers — plunked The Iliad in front of me last month, I was neither pleased nor displeased. I’d put The Iliad on my list because it seemed like a sensible thing to do; having read it many years ago, I was due for a re-read, but I wasn’t looking forward to it the way I’m looking forward to reading Villette or Lilith’s Brood.
I bounced around looking for the right edition; the one I had in my reference section (yes, I have my own reference section) was too modern, as was another edition I found in the library. I prefer poetry to be translated into poetry, so that nixed the prose versions. Finally I settled on the verse translation by Robert Fagles, with an introduction by Bernard Knox. If you’re planning on reading The Iliad, I highly recommend this edition; the introduction is thorough, organized, and insightful, and the translation moves rapidly and flows easily. (Notes and a section on proper names are included after the text.)
The Iliad is the preeminent poem of war, and it felt somehow appropriate to be reading it while I was thinking about the poets of World War I for my weekly poetry posts. For all its focus on glory and honor — and especially the physical manifestations of those qualities — the poem doesn’t shrink from the realities of violence. It’s quite gory, and since Homer often gives us a brief bio of the fighter about to be speared, the violence is intensely personal, inflicted by one specific man on another specific man. Here’s an example (and with a poppy, too):
The archers loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring
straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him–
but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,
a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,
and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion
whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,
lovely Castianira lithe as a deathless goddess . . .
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet (8.342-53)
As Bernard Knox writes in his Introduction, Homer’s use of the word “friend” between combatants “is sincerely meant; it is a recognition of equality, the equality of men of war, all of whom must face violent death” (37). In The Iliad, even kings and gods can be injured.
I think just about everyone knows the plot of the poem, so I’ll refrain from supplying it and just touch on a few things that struck me through this reading:
Bernard Knox elucidates one of the poem’s great conflicts — fate vs. free will:
[. . . ] in fact the coexistence of these irreconcilables is not a phenomenon confined to Homer’s imagined world. In any civilization which makes a place in its thought for free will (and therefore individual responsibility) and pattern (and therefore overall meaning), the two concepts –fixed and free–exist uneasily cheek by jowl. The only escape from this logical contradiction is the prison of rigid determinism, a pattern fixed from the beginning and not subject to change, or on the other hand, the complete freedom and meaningless anarchy of an unpredictable universe. And Greek thought, like ours (or those of us at least who still live in the humane traditions of the West), tries to embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined. (40)
The sensitive portrayal of Andromache and the portrayal of fierce goddesses vs. the relentless objectification of women: The poem begins, of course, with Achilles’s rage when Agamemnon carts off Briseis, one of Achilles’s war prizes (though he claims later “I loved that woman with all my heart / though I won her like a trophy with my spear” [9.416-17]). At the funeral games for Patroclus, one of the prizes Achilles offers is a woman worth four oxen, “and skilled in many crafts” (23.785). Throughout The Iliad, women are regarded as prizes and slaves (the Greeks plan to enslave the Trojan women once the city falls); rape and enslavement are weapons of war (and still are). Andromache herself is captured by Achilles’s son Pyrrhus (who slaughters her baby son) after Troy falls, and is enslaved as his concubine. This treatment of women is highlighted by Homer’s sensitive portrayal of Andromache, and the machinations and deep feelings of the goddesses who preside over the conflict, especially Hera, Athena, and Thetis (Achilles’s mother).
Unexpectedly moving passages: Given The Iliad‘s ancientness and its stylistic patterns, I expected to be interested by the poem, to appreciate it, but I didn’t expect to be truly moved. The grief of Achilles for Patroclus, Andromache’s scene with Hector, and Priam’s determination to recover Hector’s body were stand-out exceptions. All made me want to walk over to my bookshelf and take down Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles — which I read twice in a row when I received it for Christmas in 2012. If you haven’t read it, please do. It is beautiful and illuminates The Iliad like nothing I’ve ever read before.
Epic lists: The Iliad is well known for its Catalogue of Ships, but there are other lists in the poem, of course. My favorite is the list of the Nereids which appears in Book 18.
Robots: Well, almost. As Hephaestus sets about forging a new shield and armor for Achilles, “Handmaids ran to attend their master / all cast in gold but a match for living, breathing girls. / Intelligence fills their hearts, voice and strength their frames, / from the deathless gods they’ve learned their works of hand” (18.488-91).
And with robots, Dear Readers, I leave you with a question: what do you think of The Iliad?