The Iliad

This is not a books blog. Wittgenstein’s maxim Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent is a mantra to me. Wouldn’t we be happier and healthier if we only admitted our ignorance more often! I really don’t know. And I don’t know much about books either, but I’ve just read Homer’s Iliad in the translation by Robert Fagles and thought I might as well put my messy ramblings up here.

Written around 700 B.C., it’s by some way the oldest thing I’ve ever read. I’m not very well up on Greek mythology – we studied it a bit in Year 6 History, when a lovely teacher called Mrs Lund taught us about some of the gods and goddesses and about Perseus and Andromeda and Medusa, but though it enchanted me I didn’t explore it outside school (and I blotted my copybook with Mrs Lund by saying the word ‘dickhead’ without realising she was walking behind me) – but I did know some of the basics of the Iliad, which tells the story of part of the Trojan War, from having read Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel The Song of Achilles.

I mean, it’s long. A poem in 24 books, around 15,000 lines in total. Hard to ‘appreciate’ it (insofar as I ever do) on a first reading. The point was to read it and to experience it. The Fagles translation seems beautiful to me, the Penguin edition superb, with a necessarily lengthy introduction capable of being understood by the ignorant and at the end a glossary of names with pronunciation guide.

The boring bits (yes, it does have longueurs) tend to be the catalogues of people or of killings. There’s a lot of chopping off of heads in battle.

The son of Tydeus killed the two of them on the spot,
he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
tears and wrenching grief. Now he’d never welcome
his two sons home from war, alive in the flesh,
and distant kin would carve apart their birthright.

Something like this is all well and good, and nicely expressed, but in Book 5, where the bit above comes from, there are pages on end about Diomedes’ conquests in battle, and it gets a bit much. What about that violence? Is it objectionable to someone like me who is probably at the pacifist end of the spectrum though he hasn’t thought about it much? Not really. I quite like reading about brutality (Book 10, where Diomedes and Odysseus carry out a bloody raid on the Trojan camp, is very exciting), and there’s a kind of nobility to this war that no longer exists. Nuclear war is dirty war; the Trojan War has a code of honour.

Except. Ex cept. The code is violated time and time again by the gods. The relationship of gods to mortals is a fascinating one. The gods can take part in battles and, if wounded, can be put out of action for a time, but they don’t bleed and they can’t be killed. They can even procreate with mortals (Achilles is the son of the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus, for example). But in their behaviour, in their capriciousness and their bickering, they are as human as the mortals.

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

King Lear, Act 4 Scene 1

We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and banded
Which way please them.

The Duchess of Malfi, Act 5 Scene 4

The mortals seem the playthings of the gods. The gods have their loyalties (Apollo is the champion of Troy; Hera and Athena have a thing for the Greeks), and several times, during a one-on-one battle, when she perceives her man is losing, Athena, say, will swoop in and carry him away to a place of safety. Literally, a deus ex machina. It’s not playing by the rules, but they’re the gods, they can do what they like.

What I really marvelled at was the historical connection I felt, a connection across centuries, millennia in fact. It’s not until now that I’ve really thought, wow, how amazing that we have this proof of Greek and Roman civilisation that somehow wasn’t lost during the Dark Ages, the poetry of a civilisation that isn’t ours. How about this from Book 15:

[Apollo] tore that Argive rampart down with the same ease
some boy at the seashore knocks sand castles down—
he no sooner builds his playthings up, child’s play,
than he wrecks them all with hands and kicking feet,
just for the sport of it.

Sandcastles! 2,700 years ago.

The poetry itself is glorious. Patroclus to Achilles, in Book 16:

You heart of iron! He was not your father,
the horseman Peleus—Thetis was not your mother.
Never. The salt gray sunless ocean gave you birth
and the towering blank rocks—your temper’s so relentless.

Achilles tending Patroclus, Antikensammlung Berlin. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Achilles tending Patroclus, Antikensammlung Berlin. Image from Wikimedia Commons

About Achilles and Patroclus: it’s tempting to read their relationship as a gay one, as Madeline Miller does in her book. We live in a world that is full of and increasingly accepting of same-sex relationships, and we read books through the prism of our sex-conscious and sex-obsessed society. I sort of lament that. It’s moving enough to read of Achilles’ love for his friend without assigning it an erotic aspect it may not possess.

The games were over now. The gathered armies scattered,
each man to his fast ship, and fighters turned their minds
to thoughts of food and the sweet warm grip of sleep.
But Achilles kept on grieving for his friend,
the memory burning on . . .
and all-subduing sleep could not take him,
not now, he turned and twisted, side to side,
he longed for Patroclus’ manhood, his gallant heart—
What rough campaigns they’d fought to an end together,
what hardships they had suffered, cleaving their way
through wars of men and pounding waves at sea.
The memories flooded over him, live tears flowing,
and now he’d lie on his side, now flat on his back,
now facedown again. At last he’d leap to his feet,
wander in anguish, aimless along the surf, and dawn on dawn
flaming over the sea and shore would find him pacing.

I’ve started seeing the Iliad in unexpected places. I sang Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast last weekend. The metre’s different, and Longfellow’s not as great a poet as Homer, perhaps, whoever Homer was, but the epic, declamatory style is similar. And a few nights ago I went to see a student production of West Side Story where I saw more parallels – Bernardo kills Riff, so Tony has to kill Bernardo, so Chino has to kill Tony, just as Achilles has to kill Hector to avenge the murder of Patroclus.

I remember being shocked, aged about ten or eleven, when my mother said she hated the Jets and would rather have been a Shark. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that anyone might want to be a Shark. The Jets were the best, their song said so. The Jets are the viewer’s way into West Side Story, and they become sympathetic through familiarity. By the same token, is the audience of the Iliad supposed to feel more sympathy for the Greeks? We spend more time with them, certainly; but the Trojans are sympathetic too. Priam’s grief at the loss of Hector is as great as Achilles’ at the loss of Patroclus, and there’s a tender episode at the end of Book 6 where Hector visits his wife Andromache and Astyanax, the son he will never see grow old.

Was the Iliad believed as true by the people of its time, I wondered occasionally as I read the book. It may be common knowledge, but I didn’t know. Anyway, as luck would have it, a book came back to the library yesterday, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? by Paul Veyne. I can’t be bothered to read it, but the blurb on the back suggests the answer is yes and no.


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2 Responses to “The Iliad”

  1. Michael Harvey Says:

    Enjoyed your musings about The Iliad. I read it a few years ago in the same translation, but kept referring to Pope’s in rhymed couplets which is quite a different kettle of fish. I’m glad to have it under my litetrary belt, but wearied of the fighting. I have also dipped into Chapman’s Homer – like my darling Keats….

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