Monday, May 16, 2011

Iliad Readalong: Post 1 (Books 1-12)*

Here's a few housekeeping items to get out of the way before I start my review:
1. I am unabashedly Team Hector.
2. I will try to be fair to Achilles.
3. I am reading the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad (it's so pretty!)
4. Consequently, I love Robert Fagles.

I have been wanting to read The Iliad ever since I read (and enjoyed immensely) And Only Deceive, by Tasha Alexander. And Only to Deceive is a Victorian mystery that plays off The Iliad and Ancient Greek art quite a bit; in fact, large portions of The Iliad are quoted in the novel. I read parts of The Iliad for a World Literature course in college, and I taught part of Book 6, all of Book 22, and part of Book 24 the last five years at my previous school, but I had never read all of The Iliad. Reading the quoted parts of The Iliad in And Only to Deceive proved to be the final prod needed to get me to read The Iliad in its entirety.

While The Iliad is many things, at its core, it is a story about war. We see the many effects of war, and Homer is not shy about giving us the nitty-gritty of hand-to-hand combat and battles that hinged off the strength, drive, and determination of a few key individuals. As Sarpedon says to Hector, it is "the toils of war . . . the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world" (5.559-560) that have captured the attention, men, and means of two great countries, Greece (Achaea) and Troy, for ten years. The war may have started when Paris stole Helen from Menelaus, but now, ten years later, fighting to the end and to victory (which both sides concurrently believe will be theirs) has become a matter of honor and glory; the war cannot be abandoned easily (even when all seems lost, even when the war appears futile) because honor and glory cannot be discarded easily. Honor and glory are breath, bread, water, life for the men of Greece and Troy, and this determination, this unerring pursuit of victory, is what makes reading The Iliad exhilerating, haunting, and disconcerting all at the same time.

It is particularly chilling to read of the great fighters for each side because they all acknowledge that ultimately they have NO control over the outcome of the war; time after time, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Great and Little Ajax, and Odysseus for the Greeks and Hector, Aeneas, and Sarpedon for the Trojans vow to fight their best, win glory, accomplish superhuman feats of strength and courage all the while knowing that it is the favor of the gods and the decree of fate that will determine who wins this war. It is clear that men on both sides of the battle grow weary, but it is only Achilles, who is angry beyond reason, honor, and his own character at how he has been betrayed by Agamemnon, who contemplates sailing for home before the war is over. Every other Greek and Trojan, to the man (with the possibly exception of the clueless, preening, despicable Paris) will stay and fight and die for the cause they pledged themselves to ten years before.

In addition to the human players in this story, we also read and learn about the immortals who are fighting in the Trojan War. To be fair, it's really the immortals who started this war, and much as it kills me to be fair to a numskull like Paris, it has to be said that if Zeus had manned up and named who was fairest when the golden apple showed up, then Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena wouldn't have needed to try to bribe Paris to name them fairest, Paris wouldn't have chosen Aphrodite (who conveniently failed to mention that Paris' prize, the most beautiful woman in the world, happened to already be married), then Helen would never have been stolen, Menelaus wouldn't have needed to seek revenge, Agamemnon wouldn't have sacrificed his daughter for smooth sailing, and lots of pain and heartache could have been avoided. Needless to say, however, this would not have made as good a story as The Iliad! Homer is not shy about showing the Greek gods (particularly Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Ares, and Aphrodite in Books 1-12) in all their glory, pettiness, and capriciousness, and the gods' inability to make up their minds adds to the reader's sense of futility. Even when a god proclaims a favorite, his or her favoritism has very little affect on that god's actions. Case in point: Zeus claims to favor Troy (and especially Hector), but there are several points in the first twelve books where we find him actually fighting for and supporting the Greeks. He made a promise to Achilles' mother to repay the Greeks for shaming Achille (Agamemnon claimed Achilles' prized woman, Briseis), so he must act for and support the Greeks. There are many other instances of gods flip-flopping back and forth between sides, and, again, capricious is a word seemingly invented for the Greek gods!

The Iliad opens in the tenth year of the war, so we are immediately thrown into a conflict that has twisted and knotted and become complex beyond its original cause. Families, cities, and countries are caught in the web of constant fighting, constant loss, and constant uncertainty. Characters are made or broken in these situations: while Andromache weeps and begs Hector to command his troops from the wall of Troy, Helen spurns and despises Paris, wishing he was a better, braver man than his cowardly self; Diomedes and Odysseus volunteer to brave almost certain death to scout out the Trojan troops threatening the very lives of the Achaean force while Dolon, a foolish Trojan scout, plunges ignorantly into the darkness to scout out the Achaen camp and even more foolishly begs Diomedes and Odysseus to spare his life and demand a ransom. True characters and personalities, of mortals and immortals, are shown in The Iliad because the ten long years of war (and the future years of war stretching out before everyone involved) have chipped away at pretense, deceit, and falsehood, leaving the characters exposed and raw, shown for who and what they really are.

The Iliad is utterly compelling. The story is rich and vivid, and Fagles' translation is breathtaking and brilliant. Fagles' art alone makes The Iliad well worth your time.

*this is a reposting of the post I wrote for the Ancient Greeks Tour over at the Classic Circuit.


KarenSi said...

I blamed the Gods for starting the whole thing too! Do you think the reason for Hera and Athena taking the side of the Greeks has something to do with Paris' choice?

When a few characters begged for their lives it surprised me. I was expecting them all to be brave warriors prepared for death. I liked that more realistic aspect.

Read the Book said...

I know! Those Greek gods were a nasty piece of work. Athena took the side of the Greeks because Athens was dedicated to her; I'm sure Hera took the Greeks' side just to spite Zeus...

JaneGS said...

Fagles rocks! I loved his translation of The Iliad, and I'm also playing for Team Hector though I never felt a compulsion to try to like Achilles, he likes himself well enough without me!

If you like Great Courses, there's a wonderful set of lectures by Elizabeth Vandiver that I thought was outstanding.