alea iacta esto

The Greatest War, Anti-War And Poem Ever?

I first read The Iliad almost twenty years ago and what a turgid hard read that was. I couldn’t wait to put it down. It was my first contact with Greek literature and everything about it was unfamiliar and frustrating: the style, the characters, the length. Fast forward to today during which time I have spent a considerable time reading Greek literature and history and I thought, “Hmm let’s tackle The Iliad again but let’s get a new translation.” So I got this one by Robert Fagles. The Introduction is massively important and I’m glad I read it first. Then I jumped right in and the story hits you right out the gate: the power, the electricity, the passion. It felt like I had turned the corner from a street enveloped by darkness into one illuminated by the blinding razzle-dazzle lights of an amusement park.

The story is set in the final year of the great Trojan War between the Greeks and the rich, proud city of Troy. The war was started when Paris, the handsome godlike prince of Troy stole or eloped with Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Lacedaemon. She refused to go back to her wedded husband who, as far as he was concerned, believed she had been kidnapped. So ensued ten years of bitter bloody war that involved some of the greatest and most illustrious names in pre-writing Grecian history (or myth): Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax and the two central heroes, Achilles (on the Greek side) and Hector (on the Trojan side).

This book is, if anything, an incredible rush. Homer will make your hair stand on its roots and his pace and rhythm (as translated by Fagles) will make your heart race. Also captivating are the sideline schemes of the Gods – Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon etc – all supporting different sides and torn with grief when a favourite is doomed to hit the dust. The air is filled with a palpable sense of tragedy especially for the soldiers; their hopes and fears and fathers and mothers and wives and children to whom they will never return. Homer spares you none of the gory details of death and that darkness that claims the eyes when a spear runs one through and comes out the back or when an axe spills open the contents of the brain. Fagles is quite adept at ensuring your stomach turns.

It is easy to see how generations of Greek recruits could be energised by these stories and today’s flying of the Stars & Stripes gives an idea but doesn’t come close. But after six hundred pages one also starts to feel sick of the earth running black with blood. In that respect the greatest war book also becomes a potent anti-war polemic. When the book draws to a close with its climactic finish you feel subdued awe at what just happened. Homer does not end with the sacking of Troy (via the Trojan Horse) but you know it’s coming and your mind creates the carnage that must have ensued. [Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Vergil’s “The Aeneid” carry on from the end of the Trojan War if you want to read more].

PS. I thought that since I loved this translation I should go compare with the one from twenty years ago to appreciate the difference a translation makes. Oops, turned out the old was the new; it was the same translation! Goes to show how we often get rubbed the wrong way by the new and unfamiliar like I was twenty years ago; and how a little education, like I’ve done in the meanwhile, can make us less intimidated by worlds (and people) unlike what we were used to and to open us to discovery and a wider circumference of enjoyments.

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