Before we begin, I’d like to point your direction to a prelude I did, The Iliad in Perspective. It is crucial to this review, especially regarding the concepts of Glory and Honor as it relates to Homer’s era as opposed to our own. It’s designed to offer an introduction and context to both the epic poem and my understanding of its influence upon Western civilization. There’s something I didn’t say in it that needs to be understood up front, however, and I’ll begin by restating the obvious: The Iliad is one of the truly great stories of the world, and it is thousands of years old. As a result, there is no simple way to approach this work. To get the most out of this book requires scholarship. When I was a kid, it was brute force enthusiasm that made me sit in a library in those days, long before the internet, surrounded by books, cross-referencing gods, heroes, and monsters, all with alternate names, learning about the city-states of the Grecian territories, and opening myself to a world I had no clue about. It was the first of what I now call my “rabbit hole projects.” I was too young and inexperienced to know what it would entail, and I was too excited to know it was supposed to be hard. If I had to somehow approach this book today, from scratch, I would be terrified out of my mind. But no less excited. Tolkien is hard. Shakespeare is difficult. Homer… is positively alien.
And yet… this is just as false as it is true. These great masters of our literary inheritance are still part of the human experience. If anything, they’ve plugged into that experience and offered us a chance to tap greatness through them.
Immediately after I posted that prelude, I began listening to the audiobook at work and discovered that some of what I wrote about appears in the hour long introduction from the book’s translator, Caroline Alexander, which also includes plenty of updated historical information that I found extremely informative. It’s too much to go into here, but if you like to learn about archaeology and the minutiae of literary scholarship, that intro is for you. This intro also points out one of the many points of scholarship required for understanding of any of the translations: many of the characters have multiple names, for example Alexandros is the same as Paris, also called “son of Priam.” Indeed, the Greeks and Trojans are understood by other names; the Greeks are known also as Achaeans or Danaans, and the Trojans as Dardanians or Anatolians. Depending on translation, even the gods themselves have alternate names, owing to their translation from Greek to Roman mythology, and are sometimes identified simply as by their sphere of influence or an identifying trait. For example, “the thunderer” would be Zeus, or “the grey-eyed goddess” would be Athena. If you don’t have a photographic memory, break out the scorecards and keep Google close at hand. Knowing all of the names, lineages, and functions is necessary to keep track of the story, but it’s not nearly as hard as it seems at first blush. Most translations are consistent as to which variant they use. It’s just a matter of knowing what to expect.
Enough stalling. It’s time to enter the fray. To battle!
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In the final year of the decade long Trojan War, the Greek champion Achilles has his Honor and Glory wrongfully stolen from him (in the form of the captive princess, the daughter of Briseis) by the leader of the Greek expedition, Agamemnon, whose own Honor and Glory has been rightfully stripped from him. Achilles turns his back on his allies and their way of life, refusing to fight or to acknowledge the warrior ethos that defines the lot of them. When Zeus (whose own son Sarpedon fights for the Greeks) backs the Trojans, their champion, Hector, tears through the Greek ranks, inspiring fear and desperation in his wake in return for years of suffering upon his homeland.
The Greeks do everything to bribe Achilles back to the fight (echoing the bribes of the goddesses in the Judgment of Paris), knowing he is the one warrior among them who can match Hector and defeat him. Achilles rejects them all. His friend Patroclus petitions Achilles to rejoin the battle, but still the demigod refuses. With Achilles’ blessing, Patroclus dons the armor of Achilles in order to inspire his comrades back into fighting form, only to be killed in battle by Hector.
Distraught and wrathful, Achilles explodes upon the battlefield, seeking vengeance for the death of his friend. He kills Hector and then graphically mutilates his body, denying his foe any of the honors and dignities earned by a warrior of his caliber.
The Primary Heroes:
Achilles and Hector stand at the core of The Iliad, equal and opposite in every regard. They are as important for what they represent symbolically as they are in their personages. As with the concepts of Honor and Glory, it is important to really know these characters in order to get the most from this tale.
Achilles is a demigod, the son of a mortal aristocrat and a sea goddess. He is from the north of Greece, therefore considered an outsider even among his own as the majority of the other leaders and heroes on that side of the battle are from the southern areas. When he turns his back on his comrades, he forsakes their mission, their motives, and their very way of life. He shuns the entire concept of a warrior, choosing to live in obscurity for the rest of his days, a fate considered unthinkable in the mind of a combatant seeking immortality in the only way a mortal can, especially after so much death and destruction as this campaign has wrought.
Hector, by contrast, is mortal. He is the only other surviving son of Priam, brother to the most un-warrior-like Paris. He serves as Troy’s greatest hero because of the skill he wields and because of his duty. He is a loving father and an honored friend to most of the city. It is well-known that it’s pretty much him and his skills that stand between the city and its ruin. As such, Hector is fighting for the survival of his way of life and all he holds dear. So long as he stands, his fellow Trojans are inspired to continue the defense of their city.
When Achilles returns to seek his vengeance upon Hector, he is the embodiment of walking death. He does not eat; his body is sustained by his goddess mother. In his grief, he will not bury Patroclus, thus denying him the peace and dignity of a warrior’s death. In his wrath, he denies the same to Hector, though Achilles does not make that connection. Hector is killed in a manner more reflective of human sacrifice and less in a manner befitting a warrior of his caliber. Defiling Hector’s corpse as Achilles does in no way fills the emptiness of his soul, leaving grieving Achilles even more bereft of life, and bringing him ever further away from everything fought for in all the years upon that battlefield, and closer to the torment he visits upon Hector and Patroclus.
In the final book, Achilles and Hector’s father Priam reflect upon the fate of mortals and the atrocities they do to one another.
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Clearly, I’m leaving out quite a bit, but to make the point, let me compare this to a modern epic so those who’ve not read this can get some perspective. What I’ve offered here is akin to telling you that The Lord of the Rings is about a Hobbit who takes the One Ring to Mordor and drops it in the fires of Mount Doom. It says a lot and nothing at all. There’s SO much more, and knowing the basics is not the same as knowing the details of how it unfolds. Audiences in Homer’s time knew the same thing. The details is where the suspense is elevated. There are a number of other characters to know, and there are a number of subplots, all of which are beyond the scope of this review. Anything more would require a deep analysis, book by book. I hope that that will be one of the ways to entice people to read The Iliad. And when you do, it is most important to keep in mind that this poem is not merely to be read. It was performed in song, with musical accompaniment and all due theatrics. As with Shakespeare, the text is only the beginning. Honor and Glory are achieved on the stage.
What’s most curious and satisfying, and what makes this epic stand as it does, is the nature of sympathy in the storytelling. It would be easy to label the Greeks as “the good guys” and the Trojans as “the bad guys.” Here, the Trojans are not vilified. They are offered as fully three-dimensional representations and, in some regards, are treated even more sympathetically by the story than the Greeks, who are supposedly the would-be “good guys.” We get to know every main player on both sides, especially Hector, and that is what provides us with the poignancy in the epic’s finale.
One of the most common criticisms of The Iliad throughout the centuries, and especially in modern times, is that the epic glorifies war. This has to be the grossest misunderstanding of the text ever conceived, undoubtedly touted by those who have never actually read it. Quite the reverse, while warriors are glorified, war is not. My friend and fellow blogger Manuel astutely describes the middle books of The Iliad as something akin to the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It really is that graphic, but the horrors of war are simply being described as part of the realities of hoplite warfare. It just so happens that such realities only get magnified with more advanced weaponry, so it’s something that combat veterans can readily understand in any era. The Iliad is about the futility of war, the inevitability of death, and thus we come to understand the elusive permanence of Honor and Glory as mortals would actively pursue it. It takes brutality beyond imagination to stamp a definitive and permanent mark on the historic record. The sequences of battle are realistic in their portrayal, but they are not glamorized by any stretch of imagination.
The gods, who themselves are undying, must contend with death all the same. They experience the losses or imminent losses of their demigod children. Immortality proves to be a mixed blessing, resonating and elevating the later words of Herodotus, who in turn quotes the Greek statesman Solon: “Call no man happy until he is dead.”
Part of the richness of this tale involves the use of ritual, performed and related to herein with great detail, in deference to the gods. In counterpoint, the gods are whimsical, sometimes terrifyingly so. This is one of the ways we see the dual perspectives between those of gods and mortals, and in that duality, we see a greater whole that serves to propel and elevate the drama.
As with the “Judgment of Paris” (which I outlined in my prelude), there are many sequences that people “know” about the story of the Trojan War that are not found in The Iliad. The one most new readers will ask about, conspicuous by its absence, regards that most famous victory surrounding the Trojan Horse. As with the Judgment of Paris and indeed most of the stories of the war, these tales were told in other epics that in conjunction with one another gave us the full story. Those tales are lost, existing now only in fragments and summaries, and in many cases, modern novels or feature films have exploited those tidbits to greater effect, bringing them back to the popular imagination. Homer gives us some reflection upon the Trojan Horse in The Odyssey. The fates of the other characters in The Iliad are likewise told in these lost tales, just as The Odyssey reveals the fate of Odysseus.
Another point not found in The Iliad is the matter of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Homer makes it clear they are the most trusted of friends, and that is all the poem reveals. Anything more is potentially in the realm of fan fiction. I say that as though The Iliad itself is somehow free of such libelous claims — which, being a classic now, it pretty much is, but you get the point. Having said that, later writers such as Plato and Aeschylus claim that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers. Such is certainly not beyond the bounds of reality, but as these writers lived and died centuries after Homer and centuries more after the Trojan War and had no more direct insight into these characters than we do today, any claims of such a relationship is merely as credible as any claims to the contrary. It’s not that there’s any controversy to be had here, seeing as how such relationships were common and accepted before the Christian era. It’s just that we simply don’t know.
While I’ve read a handful of different translations of The Iliad in my younger days, this one is new to me. And I need to admit that I was drawn to it not because it was a new translation, but because of the narrator. Dominic Keating starred as Lt. Malcolm Reed, the armory officer aboard the NX-01 on Star Trek: Enterprise. There was an interview with him in one of the podcasts I listen to shortly after he recorded this audiobook. In that interview, he revealed that this was his first audiobook narration, and that he was completely unprepared for it (as most newcomers are to The Iliad). He specifically mentioned the “catalog of the ships” and “catalog of the Trojans” sequences as particularly brutal for him. And no wonder. I knew immediately what he was dealing with. I like to support Team Trek, and while I loved Reed’s work on Enterprise, this is a completely different kind of animal. I was legitimately curious as to what he could bring to the table on something like this. The Iliad, after all, is not a television script. Reed would have to stretch himself to pull this off in a manner for an actor worthy of the epic. It’s not easy to read, let alone perform. Having said that, I can tell you that both translation and narration are incredible wins for me. I am over the moon pleased by each in turn; the combination of the two is just astounding. Alexander’s translation is specifically geared for easier reader by modern English readers, and the flow on it is magnificent, which in turn offers so much to the narration. I suspect that was a large part of the point, given that this epic is meant to be delivered vocally. Reed’s narration is about as close to flawless as one can get. As flustered as he sounded in the interview about it, you’d never know it to listen to this. He comes across as quite the authoritative bard in his own right, honoring the spirit of original intent, and adding a bit of grit that lends to its authenticity.
Since the time of Homer, there have been many, many authors who have tried to follow in his footsteps. This is a story that was told and retold long before Homer got there, but such is the magnitude and greatness of what is achieved here that all of the versions since have failed to live up to the promise. By tradition, Virgil is said in answer to his own attempt at this that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer.” As with the authenticity of Homer’s singular identity, it doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. What matters is the truth of the claim made of the work itself and its place in history. The Iliad towers in the halls of literature, one of the truly great pillars of Western canon, inspiring a thousand knock-offs, and launching a million works of art in tribute to its magnificence. The most any of us can claim is simply whether or not we enjoy it or even properly understand it on some level. The rest is academic. The Iliad speaks for itself.
The Odyssey awaits. I never could enjoy one without the other.