It was Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult that compelled me to finally read Homer’s The Iliad, one of those ought-to-read books that are easy to avoid because so many newer and less challenging books pop up in its way. But I’m glad I decided to dive in, even if it became my actual beach read over the Fourth of July weekend and beyond. Overall, I was surprised by how violent, funny, and sometimes profound it was, and by how much it made me want to rewatch Troy. *shudder*
After first I consulted the Cliff Notes before each chapter so I could make sure I knew generally what was going on. But about halfway through I switched it up, diving into the text first and then reading the Cliff Notes to fill in context. I grew more comfortable with the tone and flow of the text, which in my translation by Robert Fagles was in poetry form.
Because the book is basically one long battle, the fighting itself—and boy is there a lot of it—can sometimes seem abstract. So I like how in the midst of the seemingly never-ending war, Homer sometimes zooms in on one minor character and briefly tells his life story—right before he dies. Like with Euchenor in Book XIII:
But Paris flared in rage at his comrade’s death,
his friend and guest among all the Paphlagonians.
Incensed, he let loose with a bronze-tipped arrow
aimed at one Euchenor, son of the prophet Polyidus,
a decent, wealthy man who made his home in Corinth.
Well Euchenor knew that boarding the ships for Troy
meant certain death: his father told him so . . .
Time and again the strong old prophet said
he’d die in his own halls of a fatal plague
or go with the ships and die at Trojan hands.
So off Euchenor sailed, both to save his wealth
from the heavy fine the Argives made deserters pay
and himself from wasting illness—no slow plague for him.
Suddenly Paris struck him under the jaw and ear—
and life flew from his limbs
and the hateful darkness had him in its grip.
And that was it for Euchenor.
There are also periodic descriptions of combat that are surprisingly graphic. This again helps to ground the story in the realities of the carnage it was producing. It was sometimes easy to forget between all the monologues and backstories of soldiers that there was an actual war going on, with countless men dying gruesome and forgotten deaths. So the moments when Homer describes entrails spilling out on the ground, for example, were, if not welcome, then at least a crucial part of making such a mythical story feel real.
I expected The Iliad to be serious, but I didn’t expect it to be funny. In Book XIV, for example, Hera called on Hypnos the god of sleep to put Zeus to sleep in order to change the course of the war. But Hypnos was reluctant to do so, since the last time he tricked Zeus to sleep, he was furious when he awoke:
But now you are back, Hera—
you ask me to do the impossible once again.”
Eyes widening, noble Hera coaxed him further:
“So troubled, Sleep, why torture yourself with that?
You think that thundering Zeus, shielding the men of Troy,
will rage as he raged for great Heracles, his own son?
Come now, I will give you one of the younger Graces—
Wed her at once and she’ll be called your wife.”
“On with it!”—Sleep cried, thrilled by the offer—
“Swear to me by the incorruptible tides of Styx,
one hand grasping the earth that feeds mankind,
the other the bright sea, that all may be our witness,
all gods under earth that gather round King Cronus!
Swear you will give me one of the younger Graces,
Pasithea, she’s the one—
all my days I’ve tossed and turned for her!”
That “On with it!” is golden. Later in that scene, Hera, awash in ambrosia and aided by a charm by Aphrodite, goes to seduce the mercurial Zeus. And he is so smitten by her that he tells her:
Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion’s wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius’ daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men…
… and on and on he goes, because nothing will set the mood better than bragging about previous carnal exploits!
Though I can’t compare it to others, I’d highly recommend Fagles’ translation of the text. There’s some beautiful language throughout, and in poetry form it’s allowed to breathe on the page. I didn’t read every word (again with the monologues!), but I finished the journey, and look forward to more in The Odyssey and The Aeneid.
Eventually. After I take a break with some reading from this millennium.