The Iliad: What it Is and Isn't
What are the responsibilities of living in community? What makes a good leader? How much control do we have over our destinies? All of these questions are asked in The Iliad, an epic poem dating to some time between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C.E. At first transmitted orally by trained poets, it was eventually written down; the earliest manuscripts we have are from the 3rd century B.C.E. We don't know how much of the poem is attributable to a single author, but it's customary to refer to Homer as its author anyway. Study of The Iliad as a Homeric poem has been going on for thousands of years! Since The Iliad was meant to be recited (with improvisations), one great answer to the question of how to read The Iliad is: aloud!
The Iliad gets its name from the city of Troy, known in Greek as Ilion or Ilios. (For a long time, this city was believed to be mythical... until an archaeologist who was a big fan of The Iliad went and dug it up, having found it based on the information in the poem.) It takes place in the ninth year of a bitter siege of Troy by the assembled armies of the Greeks. So there's no judgment of Paris in The Iliad, and no Trojan horse. The Iliad - as the opening line famously proclaims - is about the wrath of Achilles: about one man's anger, and its destructive force.
If you try to read The Iliad looking for the bare bones of what happens, you'll miss a lot. The Iliad is action-packed, but it's not all plot. There's a big difference between what happens in a text, and what a text's about, and that difference is clear in The Iliad. The narrative is divided into fairly self-contained books, an influential format.
The non-linear style of Homer's narrative is clearly illustrated by Book 2, known as the Catalogue of the Ships. On the most basic level, that's what it is: a list of all the ships brought to Troy to join Agamemnon, leader of the armies. But it also tells us a lot about social values. It tells us about the economy: vineyards, and pastures, and rich cities. It tells us about regional religious customs: about shrines, and sacred groves, and men and women rumored to be descended from gods. It also introduces us to The Iliad's cast of characters.
Famously (or infamously) The Iliad is full of battle scenes. Translating the amazingly detailed, poetic descriptions of war to the big screen has, alas, proved surprisingly boring. This is partly because Homer has time for precision that Hollywood doesn't. It's also, however, because The Iliad is a book about peace, as well as war. Homer is constantly making asides to tell us about warriors' families, or their histories. The Iliad also makes extensive use of epic simile (sometimes called Homeric simile!), extended comparisons that remind us of the world away from the battlefield.
Unsurprisingly, war and the pity of war form a central theme of The Iliad. Homer gets that war is exhausting. It can be a source of glory: warriors on the Greek and Trojan sides alike strive to perform memorable deeds. But it can also be a source of heartache. Homer describes a slain warrior as falling like a tree that will later be warped to form a chariot wheel, a mere tool of war (Book 4). When Hector, greatest of Trojan warriors, goes briefly home from the battle, his toddler son is terrified by the sight of his helmet (Book 6).
The Iliad also engages in complex ways with the relationship between humans and supernatural forces. The gods are very active as protagonists in The Iliad, helping their favorite warriors, or hindering a cause they resent. Athena, for example, loves and protects Odysseus. In the opening lines of the poem, Apollo sends a terrible sickness on the Greek troops, as punishment for Agamemnon's shaming of Achilles. Looking out for ways belief systems are illustrated may be particularly helpful in the books dealing exclusively with divine affairs.
Another significant theme of The Iliad is the relationship between community and the individual. The poem opens with the wrath of Achilles. Throughout, it's not just - or even primarily - about Troy and Greece. It's about the wit and grit of Odysseus. It's about the sensuality and the cowardice of Paris. It's about the quiet dignity of Priam, king of Troy. It's about Helen, and how she copes with an impossible situation. Even though many of the conventions of The Iliad are strange, lots of the characters are vividly, hilariously, gorgeously human. Allow yourself to love them.
A key to enjoying The Iliad is finding a translation that works for you. If you're reading it for the first time, Chapman is probably not a good choice. Chapman wrote around the time of Shakespeare, using similar language; his Homer is great, but not terribly accessible. The Iliad of Alexander Pope, eighteenth-century poet and essayist, has been praised as one of the best translations of anything ever, but it's also strange to contemporary ears.
The twentieth century saw the creation of several enduringly popular teaching translations. One is the prose version of W.H.D. Rouse, a seasoned classicist. His version is clear and often witty. Robert Fagles' version is popular for its clarity, but its tendency to simplicity undermines some of the poem's most beautiful passages. Robert Fitzgerald has a translation that's something of a classic in its own right. It's been used for read-alouds, popular for its sweep, its elegance, and its emotional directness. Recently, MC Lula has begun the first translation from the ancient Greek into rap lyrics. Wherever you choose to start with The Iliad, you'll learn a lot not only about the poem itself, but about the many different ways it's been interpreted in its millennia of readership.
The Iliad is distant from us in many ways. Attributed to Homer, it was first recited by bards three thousand years ago. The narrative conventions of the poem, with its repeated epithets and epic similes, are worlds away from us. Still, the characters of the poem are vividly human, and its themes are universal. The Iliad suggests that war brings glory to a few, grief to all. It shows humanity as having complex relationships with supernatural forces. Not least, it shows the struggles of being answerable to a community, whether fighting for the black ships of the Greeks or the proud towers of Troy.
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