The Iliad, Books 1-8

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!

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10 Responses to The Iliad, Books 1-8

  1. Karen K. says:

    I don’t have the nerve to read The Iliad, so hats off to you. And I’m especially enamored of your usage of “tenterhooks.” I’ll try and incorporate it into my vocabulary today.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, it’s not intimidating, I promise. It’s really accessible — very easy to read once you establish who all the characters are. The Fagles translation is excellent. And I looked up what tenterhooks were!

  2. Jenny! Where have you been? It should be phrased as TEAM Achilles or TEAM Agamemnon, and then you need a cute little picture off to the side to show with whom you have cast your lot!

    And don’t think we can’t tell from your last two sentences that you read US Magazine! LOLOL

    • Jenny says:

      I love your idea of Team Achilles and Team Agamemnon! I actually think I’m Team Hector, or possibly Team Patroclus.

  3. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I found myself enthralled by The Iliad when I read it for the first time. Fell in love with Hector and found myself wondering why people loved Achilles.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, me too! See Other Jenny’s comment below — I love what she says about the Trojans, though why Homer went to so much trouble to make the enemy sympathetic is a pretty interesting question.

  4. Jenny says:

    The war parts are totally good. Homer writes a war story like nobody else. Be prepared, though, there are a few moments where The Iliad is slightly less than riveting. As Horace says, there are times when the great Homer nods.

    So are you with the Trojans, or the Greeks? (NB: The Greeks are mainly jerks, and the Trojans are mainly nice, and it is not their fault that Paris is a little shit. But you make up your own mind.)

    • Jenny says:

      I think the least riveting part for me was the Gathering of the Armies — page after page of just names of city-states. I wondered — was this interesting to *them*? Because it was dead boring to *me*.

      Trojans all the way! But I do wonder why Homer bent over backward to make them so nice, since he was actually Greek.

  5. Kathleen says:

    My son read this a few years ago for school and really enjoyed it. I’ve read the Odyssey but never this one. It does sound like it has every element to be appealing to me.

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