Hackett Publishing, 1997
At long last finished the Iliad last night, after months of just being too busy to read. After reading Stanley Lombardo’s excellent translation, I think I’m spoiled for the rest of Greek Literature in English (barring of course Lombardo’s Odyssey, which I’m tempted to pick up next.) I read the Iliad back in college in one of those dry prose versions (probably Martin Hammond or Samuel Butler) and I never could figure out why this rambling repetitive narrative was a cornerstone of Western Lit. With Lombardo’s translation-in modern English, heavily colloquial, and in verse-that’s all suddenly apparent, and my memory of the first reading seems to have vanished.
There were moments when I had to stop and remind myself that what I was reading was thousands of years old. Lombardo makes you feel like it was yesterday (and seeing I started reading it during the beginning of the second Iraqi Boffo Oil Grab and Civilian Massacre, it probably was yesterday), and Homer’s techniques and style shine through.
Lombardo sets apart the lengthy metaphors that are part of Homer’s technique in italic mini poems; these “asides” heighten the poetic effect by taking you out of the action for a line or ten and then spinning you right back into the thick of battle. And who wouldn’t groove on the gory and inventive detail that Homer invests in the damage a bronze-tipped spear can do to the human body. We get enter and exit wounds, popping eyeballs, crushed skulls, spraying blood and intestines, all in gratuitous slo-mo. Somebody call the Minister for Worrying Over Children and have this book banned immediately!
Two main things interested me throughout The Iliad. One was the even-handed approach that Homer gives to both sides: war is hell, but war also seems to be the social interaction of two equal units (which you can’t say for most of the wars of the 20th Century). Imagine a Gulf War narrative that quickly sketched the family background of both American and Iraqi soldier just before both were killed, making the losses equal, and equally sad.
The other interest was the rather complex conception of fate as it applied to the mortals and the gods that took their sides. The hierarchy on Mount Olympus complicates things to start with. Zeus has determined that Troy will fall, but within these plans there’s much room to plot. Fate and predetermination are of a much looser quality than in Christianity, and I’m sure much has been written about it. I guess it boils down to this: a Christian would see getting hit by a car as God’s will, with the reason kept mysterious. A Greek would see it as Zeus’s will, but the reason would be based up several factors, one being that a few years ago you displeased Hera by not burning an ox in supplication, which led to a fight among the gods, and also there was that time when you picked on your brother, who, you always suspected, was favored by a goddess, and she put in a good word for him. Or something like that.
My final question: Why on earth does this action-packed, spear-and-shield epic end with a major sporting event (the “funeral games”)? I didn’t see that coming, but I’m sure Zeus knew.
Iliad – Homer (trans. Stanley Lombardo)
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