Monday, February 7, 2011

You're a Good Man, Charles Dickens!

Today is the anniversary of Charles Dickens, one of my dearest literary loves. There's not much that I could say that would appropriately commemorate this momentous day, so I will leave you with a passage about one of my favorite characters (Arthur Clennam) from one of my favorite Dickens novels (Little Dorrit).

He was a dreamer in such wise, because he was a man who had deep-rooted in his nature, a belief in all the gentle and good things his life had been without. Bred in meanness and hard dealing, this had rescued him to be a man of honorable mind and open hand. Bred in coldness and severity, this had rescued him to have a warm and sympathetic heart. Bred in a creed too darkly audacious to pursue, through its process of reversing the making of man in the image of his Creator to the making of his Creator in the image of an erring man, this had rescued him to judge not, and in humility to be merciful, and have hope and charity.

And this saved him still from the shimpering weakness and cruel selfishness of holding that because such a happiness or such a virtue had not come into his little path, or worked well for him, therefore it was not in the great scheme, but was reducible, when found in appearance, to the basest elements. A disappointed mind he had, but a mind too firm and healthy for such unwholesome air. Leaving himself in the dark, it could rise into the light, seeing it shine on others and hailing it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Just a quick post acknowledging that exactly one year ago today I started this blog.

At the time, I was reading East of Eden but had to put it aside when I got sick.

An interesting tidbit: while I am not reading East of Eden, I am sick again, just in time for the Super Bowl (which I care about as much as I did last year).

So, thanks to said illness, tonight I have been watching Downton Abbey and moseying around the internet. Jane Eyre might make an appearance, too.

I am so thankful that I started this blog and became a part of this wondeful community!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Rage--Goddess"? "Rage--Achilles" Might Be More Appropriate

When I signed up for the Ancient Greeks Tour at the Classics Circuit, I signed up to read and review The Iliad. In reality, however, reviewing all twenty-four books of The Iliad is a bit daunting, especially since I'm supposed to write a blog post and not a book. That being said, I will be discussing Books 1-12 of The Iliad today and will review the rest of The Iliad at a later time (be warned: this could very well turn out to be a series of posts rather than just two).

Here's a few other housekeeping items to get out of the way:
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.

One of the reasons I chose The Iliad when I found out that the Classics Circuit was doing an Ancient Greeks tour was because I had recently 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.

As I predicted, this has turned into a very long post, and I've only covered a tiny part of the first half of The Iliad! Check back in a few days for my thoughts on how Hector and Achilles are portrayed in Books 1-12.