Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Iliad by Homer


The Iliad is a strange book - I'm sure the real classicists of the world take this for granted, but for me, it's very odd. Growing up for me, who liked mythology, the stories I always heard most about in terms of the Trojan War were the Apple of Discord, Paris and Helen eloping, and the Death of Achilles. Guess what, none of them are in the Iliad. Not because the story is different, but because the Iliad just starts in the middle of the war, on the day Achilles gets angry at Agammemnon, and ending right after Achilles kills Hector. Supposedly, originally there were many other books, now lost, and it feels that way.

This is not to say the epic is fragmentary - it certainly has it's own internal narrative. And it's an interesting one. The Iliad has lot of themes, but to me, the overpowering one was fate, and it's inevitability. From the beginning, Hector knows his fate, as does Achilles, and yet each marches onward. One gets the feeling that when Achilles sends Patroclus out, he knows that he will die, and et he does it. Achilles is a strangely mystic figure to start with, and the idea of his choosing between a long life of comfort and the short glory of his meteoric role as the great warrior of the Greek army resonates still. It was such a strange book, for me, because it at once had this martial, powerful tone (not my favorite tone), and this quiet, feeling of generalized doom. The war, supposedly, begins in part because Zeus decides to depopulate the earth. It begins with pain, and then after the book, it ends with every single major Greek hero dying or suffering greatly (except Nestor, I suppose). The morals, they are not my morals, there are long periods of tedious war description (the description of javelins piercing people through the mouth got a wee bit tiresome), but I understand why this book has been kept for so long.

As a last note, I read the old translation by Alexander Pope, and... whoah! The entire poem is written in heroic couplets - ie, two lines of 5 iambs, rhyming. The whole poem. The ability to translate an entire book from an entirely different language, and maintain the iambic pentameter whacked my brain out, and I appreciated it in the book - I know more 'accurate' translations have now been made, but from a poetic standpoint, this translation practically stands as an accomplishment of English literature, on it's own.

PS - I have no clue what that is a picture of, but it came up on a search for Athena. Hrm...

7 comments:

Julie said...

You really do an impressive job at writing a review that I have to read a few times over and that makes me really ponder it too. I look forward to it.

Lula O said...

I've only read Homer's The Odyssey. Have you read that one, and if you have, how does it compare?

Shelley said...

I was expecting all of the things you mentioned, too. I read the Fagles translation, which I would imagine was much easier. The picture looks like a lego!

Jason Gignac said...

Julie: Thank you :)
Lula: I have read bits of the Odyssey, and am re-reading it (also the Pope version) now. Gimme a week... ;)
Shelley: I imagine there would be much EASIER translations, but this one had a really fascinating feel, I would almost feel weird reading prose, now. The couplets felt so... martial, I guess.

Rebecca Reid said...

Fagles is poetry, but a modern poetry -- I can't remember what type of scheme it was but he had some rhythm going. Not rhyming, but certainly poetry.

I read Fagles for both Iliad and the Odyssey in the past year. I loved them both, but especially the Iliad. I want to revisit them in many other translations. I'm glad to hear that it's possible to get through the Pope. I've been intimidated.

I like this review. So to the point.

Jason Gignac said...

I'm not a classicist, by any stretch of the imagination, so I can't speak to any other translation - I don't know if they're any good or not. And, from a 'I want to be a good scholar' stnadpoing, I'm led to understand that "The Pope" is a poor source - even by 1900, when the intro to the Gutenberg edition was written, there's a lot of talk about how modern scholarship has shown a lot of errors and mistranslations in his version. Pope, though, was one of the great poets of the English language in his own rights, and it shows in the translation. The language is apparently WRONG, but it's luscious and fruity and delicious. Like Shakespeare, with a javelin and a strong polytheistic bent. Eeh... the idea of Shakespeare with a Javelin. Hrm.

Rebecca Reid said...

lol for Shakespeare and the javelin.

There are lots of "translations" out there these days who aren't even trying to be "accurate" per se. Like Christopher Logue's War Music. I haven't read it but I'm seriously wanting to: it's The Iliad "reconstructed" in the poet's own words. I think it could be well done, even if it's not "accurate". Now that I know the story, I'm not so concerned with accuracy myself.