Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Book Review: The Iliad by Homer

I have to start by saying that I absolutely LOVE The Iliad.  I have a passion for Greek mythology and studied Classics in university and Homer is definitely one of my favorites.  

In May I took on the challenge by A Literary Odyssey to read Homer's Iliad.  I realized that it must be nearly 20 years since I read it in university, so decided it would be fun to read it again, this time without the pressure of essays and exams.  I don't feel that a traditional book review is something I could write about this epic novel, so I will write about some of my favourite things and impressions.

First off, I had to pick a translation - there are so many to choose from!  After looking through about 15 boxes of books that I have in storage to find my old Lattimore translation, I decided to go to our local used bookstore and buy the Robert Fagles translation.  I was skeptical at first because I had loved the Lattimore translation, but I quickly found that the Fagles translation was amazing too - it is a poetry translation, but is also very readable and has a great feel to it.  I would highly recommend this one to anyone wanting to read The Iliad, especially if they are looking for a modern poetry translation.  It won the Academy of American Poets 1991 Landon Translation Award and I can see why.

And then there is the story itself, it takes place over a few days near the end of the Trojan War, and is about Achilles' rage at Agamemnon for his slight to his honour.  The first lines tell it all:
Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
I found The Iliad interesting and exiting to read, though it did take a lot of concentration.  This is a story that was originally intended to be recited aloud, so reading it uses a different part of the brain (I think - or, at least for me).  There are certainly different devises used than in modern writing, such as repetitive epithets.  For the most part, I found if I took my time and was not distracted (too much), I could read through it fairly easily.  But, the exception to this is Book 2, the catalog of ships.  Here Homer lists all of the ships and heroes who have come to Troy from around Greece.  This is very long and tedious to read, but if you can make it through that, the rest of the books should seem easy!

The other thing that was a bit hard with The Iliad is the lists of people fighting and how they died.  This is a story that takes place in a war and there are lots of battle scenes with grizzly deaths.

One of the really fun aspects of the book is the gods meddling in human affairs.  Some of this was quite funny and a welcome relief to the battle scenes.  

Then there is the human element of The Iliad, the stories that make the book what it is, such as Andromache worried about her husband coming home from battle, the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, Menalaus fighting to get his wife, Helen, back from Paris, Achilles' rage at Agamemnon for being slighted, and Priam doing whatever it takes to get his dead son's body back for burial.  It is always amazing to me that Priam, after watching his son's body get defiled for days by Achilles, the man who killed him in battle, can go to him as a suppliant, and even feast with him.  It is absolutely heart wrenching.  This is only one of the incredibly touching and human scenes in The Iliad.

I would love to hear about myths or classical stories that other people love.  Do you have a favourite?  I have so many that it is hard to pick, but The Iliad is certainly up there for me.

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