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.


Anonymous said...

Superb post! I really enjoyed reading through that. I've been an Iliad fan since I was a child (thanks to the "Classics Illustrated" comic book version) and even went on to become a classics minor in college.

Good point about the Gods being responsible for starting the war and all their flip-flopping between sides. That must have been very frustrating for the humans... :-)


Read the Book said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jay! The whole time I was reading I just kept thinking, "how did the Greeks do it?" I mean really? The gods are enought to drive ANYONE crazy!

S.L. Bookworm said...

I love how you addressed the politics of the gods driving the politics of the humans. Their destinies are intertwined, and that's an appealing thought. It makes the lives of humans more mythic and the lives of the gods more accessible.

Read the Book said...

True, Amy, but I also found myself wondering how the Greeks could continue to believe in the gods because they were just so terrible!

I like that you said it make the lives of humans more true...

Hannah said...

How fantastic! Wonderful post. I've been posting about the Iliad all week (not today, though) and will be for several more posts. There is just so much in this book! I was completely taken aback by how much I loved it.

Your discussion about the gods is lovely. If it is OK, I would love to link to this post in one of my upcoming discussions.

Finally, I am totally with you on Hector. The scene in ch 6 with his son is so wonderful. I've been trying to write a post for tomorrow about why Homer might have made the Trojans so sympathetic. Any ideas?

Read the Book said...

Thanks, Lifetime! I've been enjoying your posts, and it is just fine for you to link to mine!

As to why Homer made the Trojans so sympathetic, perhaps he was trying to show that all Trojans were not like Paris? Really, the Trojans were kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, and I found it extremely interesting how much Helen really despised yet couldn't resist Paris!

When I studied The Iliad in college, my professor specifically set time in class aside to discuss how Homer shows Hector as warrior, husband, and father, and we spent quite a bit of time on Book 6. I think this is one of many reasons why I like Hector so much more than Achilles! I'm sure I'll do a post about why Hector is better than Achilles at some point.

Keep up the good work! And have you read Book 22 yet? It might be my favorite, even though it is so stinking sad, because the language is just so beautiful.

Hannah said...

Wonderful! I'll link to you in tomorrow's post. I very much like your thinking on Hector versus Paris. Looking forward to you next post.

Rebecca Reid said...

ah, i just loved reading this so much, you've made me want to revisit it! I also read the Fagles translation.

I think I was more in Achilles camp. Not that I liked him -- no way -- but he really fascinated me. I loved the exaggerated passion. I think that was his half-god qualities, since the gods were all exaggerated too in their passions.

I can no longer put it in to words WHY I loved it. I need to reread it.