The Iliad

Status: published

This is my second time reading the Iliad, having read through it under theguidance of one Professor D- R-. during my undergrad years. Since this was mysecond time through, I picked a new, rather unorthodox edition "translated" byStephen Mitchell (not the Old Norse guy at Harvard): The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation)\"\" I put the word "translated"in quotes because Mitchell may not actually know Homeric Greek at all. In anycase, this edition is based on some real scholarly work which has tried toexcise the repetitive and superfluous parts which have crept into the story asa side effect of the story's original oral nature. Under normal circumstances,I would say that all that cruft is fairly essential to understanding Homer andepic poetry in general. Without it, you can't really have a good discussionabout orality and Homer is the only author in the Great Books who straddles theworlds of oral and written transmission. This is partly because the Great Booksentirely ignores medieval Scandinavian literature which occupies a similarspace in the oral versus written spectrum as Homer. The reasoning behind thisomission being that while the Western canon influenced Scandinavian literature,Scandinavian literature did not really influence the Western canon. But since Ihave personally spent many years obsessing about issues of orality, it was kindof refreshing to give the Iliad another look without wondering whether or notAchilles is "swift-footed" for narrative or metrical purposes in any giveninstance. This allow me to concentrate more on the larger, more enduringthemes, or "ideas", as Adler would call them. But if this is your first timereading the Iliad, definitely go with a more traditional translation like theFagles: The Iliad (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)\"\"

Being set in the middle of the Trojan War, war itself is obviously a majortheme in the Iliad. It depicts a time when every soldier had a name and lineageknown both by his compatriots and his enemies. Kings and commanders led theirtroops personally. Each loss was mourned and every corpse recovered wheneverpossible. But as much as the armies valued the corpses of their own, theyequally reveled in the desecration and looting of the corpses of the enemy. Onecan easily see how either practice increases the necessity of the other. It wasalso a time of an emphasis on one-on-one combat. There's even a point wherethey try to decide the whole outcome of the war based on the results of asingle duel, only to be thwarted by the intervention of the goddess Aphrodite.They also had a clear and simple objective: retrieve Helen. While this type ofwarfare may very well never have been an accurate depiction of Greek warfare atany stage of development, one cannot help but feel that, corpse desecrationaside, this is how wars ought to be fought. Today, our ruling class takes nopart in warfare. The ability to declare war and the responsibility to do theactual fighting are wholly divorced from one another. We box up our dead by thehundreds and thousands, giving a handful a tiny mention once in a while. Theenemy dead are wholly anonymous in their staggering hundreds of thousands. Wedon't dedicate our entire army to a decade of conflict just to overcome theenemy's defenses. We casually fight multiple wars at a time, crushing the enemyin a matter of weeks, and then insanely linger for years because we had noclear reason or purpose for fighting the war in the first place, thus deprivingus of the ability to determine whether or not we had achieved that purpose. Warhas become both easy and pointless. Afghanistan started out straightforwardenough: revenge. But then we wholly lost of sight of the objective and onlyachieved it a decade later. And having lost sight of the objective, actuallyachieving it had little effect on our decision to stay or leave. Iraq wasutterly pointless. One might argue that it was an attempt to tie up loose endsfrom the Gulf War. But why did we even fight that war? Some argue it was aboutoil and profiteering. Except virtually none of the oil resources ended up inAmerican hands and what little did nowhere near compensated us for the cost ofthe war. Honestly, I'd prefer shameless pillaging and annexation to that weirdclusterfuck of a war.

One curious thing about the text is that it takes place in a semi-mythicalpast, straddling between the worlds of pure fable and actual history, much inthe way that it straddles oral and written culture. While the modern scholarlyopinion is that the Trojan War happens, the Iliad has links to a more obscurepast. Nestor is arguably the strongest of these links. By the time of the war,Nestor is well over a hundred years old. He survives from the time of theArgonauts and the War Against the Centaurs. Even in his old age, he is one ofthe mightiest Greek warriors, out-matched by only some of the other commanders.He often laments that his abilities are not what they once were and that men ingeneral were not as great as the men of a generation or two before. It isplausible that a youthful Nestor, being from this mythological past age ofgreater men, would severely overshadow all others in the war. Without hobblingNestor with old age, these two eras could not overlap with any plausiblenarrative consistency. Even the mighty half-god Achilles falls short of therenowned half-god of Nestor's generation, Hercules. I'm not really sure ifthere is any deeper significance to this but I definitely have a soft spot forstories of old heroes long past their prime. Though, perhaps Nestor simplyserves as a reminder that the old were not always so and that the frailty ofold age can mask a past of ability surpassing that of those that cameafter.

Perhaps the most overt theme of the Iliad is the danger of immodest anger.Achilles remains out of the fighting for most of the story because of his angerat Agamemnon. Further, he leverages his influence with his goddess mother toget Zeus to punish the Greeks, Achilles' own people, because of this anger. TheGreeks are nearly utterly destroyed, overwhelmed so suddenly at one point thatretreating on their ships was simply not feasible. Achilles only returns to thefighting because his cousin/bestfriend/secret gay lover takes pity on hisfellow Greeks and enters the fight without Achilles, only to be killed byHector. In the end, Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Achillesacknowledges at length that his anger ultimately achieved nothing. Many Greeksdied needlessly and the extent of his anger prevented him from acceptingreparations from Agamemnon when they were offered. Anger in itself achievesnothing. Simply being angry wont fix the problem that originally inspired theanger. And holding on to that anger in defiance of any attempt to amelioratethe situation only harms the angered party.

It is hard to know what to make of the gods in the Iliad. Taken literally,the gods overtly intervene at nearly every stage of the conflict. Theyphysically stand beside warriors and deflect spears. They pull wounded soldiersfrom the fighting. Zeus hurls lightning bolts at the Greeks. This can seemsomewhat jarring to a modern audience. What is the point of man's choices andfree will if the gods consistently dictate fate so blatantly? Achilles knowsfull well that he will die after killing Hector. Hector likewise knows when hisend approaches. Fate seems fixed. Perhaps the literal interpretation is thewrong one? Rather than a god physically deflecting spears, perhaps a spearmisses in the normal way and it must be attributed to a god out of a beliefthat the gods are responsible for all things? And the seeming immutability ofAchilles' fate may merely be a symptom of the literary mode, prophecy beingmerely a crude form of foreshadowing, not a reflection of general Greek beliefsabout fate.

On a minor note, this translation opted to describe the two Ajaxes as "Ajaxthe Tall" and simply "Ajax". It also tried very hard to keep the two Ajaxesfrom being confused. In some translations, the impression is that Ajax the Tall(usually Ajax the Greater) is the one doing all the great deeds while the otherAjax (usually Ajax the Lesser) is some kind of lame sidekick. In thistranslation, the impression is more that they are both total badasses and oneof them just happens to be tall. This definitely improves the Ajax/Ajaxdynamic, in my opinion.