I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks, wondering when I was going to get on with my Summer of Greek and Roman Classics. Tenterhooks! Well, here I am, back again, with Robert Fagles’s translation of the Iliad. You may remove yourselves from the hooks, on your tenter.
Reading the Iliad (the reference is to Ilium, Troy, so this is supposed to be about the Trojan War, though it’s actually about an event that happens nine years into the war) reminded me of my experience reading War and Peace. When I read that — actually during another Summer of Long Classics I Hadn’t Read Yet — I expected to like the Peace parts a lot, but to be bored, restless, and put off by the War parts. In fact, I found myself riveted by the entire spinning world Tolstoy created. The same thing happened here. I expected to have to bludgeon my way through a lot of dull battle descriptions (why did I expect this? one of my favorite pieces of literature is the Song of Roland) and to have them enlivened by a few conversations. Instead, I found myself drawn in, moved, and wondering at the beauty and flexibility of the whole work.
Right from the beginning, the reader is asked to choose sides: Achaeans or Trojans? Zeus or Hera? And, more subtly, Achilles or Agamemnon? Of course, this poem is about nation-building. We know the outcome; Troy’s fall is not in doubt. But Homer makes it clear that within a certain structure of destiny and hierarchy, a great deal can happen and many lives can be needlessly lost.
Book 2 brings one of the first examples of Homer’s use of repetition. It took me some time to notice that this repetition is almost verbatim, but never quite. Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon, and tells the dream what words to use to send his message. The dream goes to Agamemnon, prefaces his remarks with some reproaches that Agamemnon is asleep at all, repeats Zeus’s precise words, then ends with an injunction not to forget when he wakes. You see what I mean? Almost exact, but not quite. I’ll talk about this more in later books, when the lack of exact repetition becomes a plot point.
One use of language that stood out to me more than almost any other was the strong, frequent use of natural language for battle.
Armies gathering now
as the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes
or swans with their long lancing necks — circling Asian marshes
round the Cayster outflow, wheeling in all directions,
glorying in their wings — keep on landing, advancing,
wave on shrieking wave and the tidal flats resound.
So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower — men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.
Homer does this throughout the entire work. Armies, or men in battle, are like flowers, birds, goats being managed by goatherds. They are like dogs, like flies, like a glorious sunset, like a river in full spate. I wondered whether this was because we are supposed to see war as natural, a normal human activity (which I suppose after all this time we must admit it is), or whether this was because natural images were what he had available. I suppose he could have used something man-made, like a pot or a wagon or even a sleek arrow, but he couldn’t exactly have said they looked like a well-maintained Ferrari.
The battle scenes do remind me of the Song of Roland, an epic I’ve taught many times. They are a combination of glory and heartbreak, formality and chaos, beauty and horrible gore.
— he landed flat on his back,
slamming the dust, both arms flung out to his comrades,
gasping out his life. Pirous who heaved the rock
came rushing in and speared him up the navel —
his bowels uncoiled, spilling loose on the ground
and the dark came swirling down across his eyes.
All this, and the gods, too: Athena, Hera, and ultimately the will of Zeus against Troy, versus Apollo and (at first, deceptively) Zeus against the Achaeans. The gods mimic the appearance of men, they appear as themselves, they bring plague and fire and fear and fate and dreams and omens. Every meal must begin with libations and prayers, or some god will be offended and will end the army’s chances. Every soldier with divine ancestry improves his luck. How can you do tactical planning this way?
Still, it’s the people who matter. In Book 3, Paris is revealed as a contemptible coward. In book 4, Agamemnon steps forward as rash and arrogant, a take-and-have sort of leader who cares nothing for the honor of his men. In book 6, Hector removes his high, bristling helmet so his tiny son won’t be afraid, and will kiss him.
I found the Iliad shockingly human, from the characters’ sulkiness to their blood on the dusty battlefield. Fagles’s wonderful translation has a cadence and a vivid interest that had me reading aloud, in parts. I don’t know why I was surprised. Next up: Achilles in his tent, Ajax, and The Gods! They’re Just Like Us!