October 8, 2010

Review: "The Iliad" By Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)

"Homer makes us Hearers, and Virgil leaves us Readers."  So wrote Alexander Pope, in 1715, in the preface to his translation of The Iliad.

I have just completed reading a magnificent translation of Homer's The Iliad, and couldn't have enjoyed the experience more.  I had read bits and pieces of The Iliad over the course of my life, but I had never read the entire poem from start to finish.  I recently purchased the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of a translation by Robert Fagles that was completed in 1990.  While I am not qualified to compare or judge the work of one translator versus that of another, I can say that I truly enjoyed Fagles' lyrical translation that largely maintains the hexameter verse structure (i.e., six beats per line) of the original Greek texts.  For a six-hundred page poem, it was eminently readable, and a darn good story too!

Simply put, The Iliad is the story of the last year of the ten-year long Trojan War, long thought to have been fought between the Achaean (Greek) forces and the Trojans in the 12th or 11th century BCE.  The Iliad is thought to be about 2,700 years old and is, in essence, a transcript of an epic poem in hexameter verse that was originally shared via an oral or bardic tradition.  As I was reading the poem, I couldn't help but stop and imagine a traveling story-teller stopping in a small village, and standing in the village square next to a bonfire at night and recounting this tale to a rapt and wide-eyed audience.

In some respects, The Iliad could have been easily titled "The Rage of Achilles" (and indeed, that is the title of Book One).  The poem opens with Achilles, and it essentially concludes with Achilles.  In between is recounted the tales of the battles of egos among the primary characters and among most, if not all, of the gods on Mount Olympus.  For example, the Greek leader, Agamemnon, and the Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles clearly don't like one another; and this initially leads to significant problems for the Greeks as they battle Hector and his Trojan battalions.  Similarly, on the Trojan side, Hector doesn't think much of his younger brother, the "magnificent" Paris (a simpering dilettante).  Unfortunately, for the Greeks, because of his ongoing 'tiff' with Agamemnon, Achilles sits on the beach drinking wine and sulking for much of the poem, and doesn't enter the fray until his best friend, Patroclus, is killed in combat with Hector.  Once Achilles commits to the fight though, he becomes the true definition of a 'berserker,' and is clearly the indomitable and heroic warrior; although I have to say that Diomedes and Great Ajax are pretty darned impressive fighters too!

I very much enjoyed how the poem wove in the politics and actions of the gods and goddesses as they continually intervened and influenced the human protagonists during the course of the tale.  Some of the gods side with the Achaeans (e.g., Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Thetis, etc.), and others with the Trojans (e.g., Ares, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.), with Zeus paternally watching over them all.  The poem also makes quite the point of describing the hubris, selfishness, deceit, and the treachery behavior exhibited by both mortals and immortals alike.  While the poem assigns the blame for the Trojan War on Paris' abduction of Menelaus' wife, Helen (i.e., "the face that launched a thousand ships"), I happen to think the poem also implies that the war was fought because of prideful stubbornness on both sides.  Also, from a historical perspective, I have to wonder if the Trojan War really wasn't the result of a Greek desire to expand its hegemony for simple economic reasons--i.e., to control the trade routes through the Aegean Sea.  Anyway, it doesn't matter, it was simply grand to read the poem and to be completely swept up in the drama and passion of it all.

I must caution readers that The Iliad contains some of the most savage, intense, and vivid combat imagery that I have ever encountered in literature.  This ain't your typical 'So-and-so slew So-and-so' nondescript poetic characterization.  Oh no, this is gory, explicit, and very descriptive writing that tells precisely where the great bronze spearhead struck some poor fellow, and then what it did to his body, face, or internal organs.  After one reads The Iliad, one realizes that hand-to-hand combat and butchery with spears, swords, bows and arrows, chariots, and rocks and clubs is a very personal business, messy and very, very dangerous.

I suppose that one's experience with reading The Iliad is influenced by the particular translation that you pick up, and there are a great number of them out there.  I chose the translation by Robert Fagles, largely based upon reading reviews and my own experience reading his translation of Aeschylus' The Oresteia.  Fagles' translation of The Iliad, for me was just magical and the poem seemed alive with richness in a contemporary framework that I could readily understand.  As I mentioned above, his translation is quite lyrical and loosely maintains a meter of five- and six-beats per line throughout.  Read it aloud, it just rolls off of the tongue, and becomes simply enchanting.

I wanted to provide a couple of examples of the poetic flavor of The Iliad for you to experience.  The first example is from Book 4: "The Truce Erupts In War" and is a description of the Greek Army advancing across the Scamander Plain to meet the Trojan Army in combat--

"As a heavy surf assaults some roaring coast,
piling breaker on breaker whipped by the West Wind,
and out on the open sea a crest first rears its head
and then pounds down on the shore with hoarse, rumbling thunder
and in come more shouldering crests, arching up and breaking
against some rocky spit, exploding salt foam to the skies--
so wave on wave they came, Achaean battalions ceaseless,
surging on to war." (Book 4: Lines 489-496)

One can almost imagine the soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, spears pointed forward, rank upon rank, advancing across the dusty plain, screaming and bellowing at the top of their lungs as they move toward their Trojan foes.  What a terrifying sight it must have been!

The next sample I want to provide is from the last book of The Iliad, and recounts the late-night meeting between Achilles and the Trojan King, Priam.  I don't want to spoil the poem for any first-time readers, but suffice it to say that Priam is there for a very important reason; and after nearly ten years of war, the two adversaries sit together talking in Achilles' tent late at night.  It is truly a tender, touching, and most poignant scene; especially this almost pensive reflection on the human cost of the war that Achilles shares with King Priam--

"Come, please, sit down on this chair here...
Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What good's to be won from tears that chill the spirit?
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments--the gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus's halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries in one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcast--brutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men."
(Book 24: Lines 609-622)

So, so sad; and somehow one suddenly realizes that Achilles has become a very, very wise young man.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the Human Race was given a gift--a great gift from a largely unknown itinerant poet--The Iliad.  It is a treasure for all humanity.  Read it, think about it, learn from it, and most of all pass it on--tell this great story to all who will listen.  It is their story too.



  1. I don't have time to read the entire post now, but I did want to make a brief comment about the first point - which is the translation. I absolutely always go for an R. Fagles translation, whenever I can find it. I have the Penguin Deluxe C.Eds. of both The Illiad & The Odyssey, and they outshine (in readability and interest) any other edition I've seen. I too, though, have not gotten through either of both, front to back. I'm going to correct that soon.

    Be back later to read the rest!

  2. Great post, Christopher. I have the Fagles translation of The Odyssey, but I have never read The Illiad (please don't tell my students, they think I have read everything). This definitely goes on my list for November.

  3. Hi! I just found your great blog. Wonderful post. I haven't read Homer yet but after this I am really looking forward to it. I've got the Lattimore translation, which I think will be more to my taste, but it will be interesting to compare with Fagles some time. Treasures indeed!