Week 14 (Blaga): The Iliad, by Homer

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Reader: Blaga

Task #9: Read a book you have read before

 

Book: The Iliad, by Homer (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald; Read by Dan Stevens)

Publisher: Farar, Straus & Giroux (2004) (Original translation 1974)

Audiobook: Macmillan Audio; Unabridged edition (September 16, 2014)

 

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous…”

 

Nine years since the Greek ships reached the shores of Troy and began the famous war over Helen of Sparta, Agamemnon, the king of all the Greek kings, wounds the hero Achilles’ honor. The enraged hero withdraws from battle, unleashing a chain of events that have decisive effects of the outcome of the war, and Achilles’ own fate.

I first read the Iliad when I was just 11 years old, around the time of its most (in)famous big screen “adaptation.” Ever since, I have made a habit of re-reading it every few years. I now have several translations – one in my native Bulgarian, several in English, and snippets of the original ancient Greek – under my belt. I should note that as a general rule, I do not enjoy re-reading books, especially not more than once. The Iliad has been the exception, in part because it is the richest works of literature that I have ever encountered, but also because the text’s various incarnations, from the original to its translations, are all unique, with their own merits.

Anyone who has at least dabbled in translation knows that the translator must make choices about how the original text will be transmitted into its new form. During this transition, some of the meaning is always lost, a problem that holds especially true when it comes to poetry. The translators I have read (note: in the past decade alone, there have been eight new major translations) have all approached the Iliad differently, especially when it comes to vocabulary and metre. As a result, some of them have been easier to read than others; some have stuck close to the Greek and others have been looser (here is an excellent essay in the New Yorker that discusses four notable versions and their authors’ approaches in more in depth).

No matter which version one chooses, it’s not something most people could sit and read for pleasure on a rainy day. It is long, it is dark (at places quite graphic), and it is quite difficult, although it does leave the reader with a profound sense of satisfaction whether one has read twenty lines or a hundred. The biggest irony here is that the Iliad was not originally intended to be read at all. It was meant to be performed out loud and to be listened to (there is a reason why the author calls upon the goddess to sing in the poem’s very first line). For all my dedication to the text, I had never actually listened to it before.

Fortunately, I remembered that I happen to own an audiobook version of Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It is one of the best-known and widest-circulated, although it has never been a favorite of mine. In part, that is due to his insistence of transliterating the Greek names into English (thus Achilles is Akhilleus), but also because his voice on the page is archaic and slow-moving. Yet, Dan Stevens’ performance brings the text right off the page, making it surprisingly accessible and a real pleasure to listen to. Fitzgerald’s text is rich and lyrical, and read aloud that comes through beautifully. The emotions of the characters – Achilles’ indignation and grief, Hector’s annoyance and determination, Andromache’s fear and love, Hera and Athena’s pettiness and frustration – were more vivid than ever, and I was able to picture the events of the story with rare vividness, becoming more of a witness than a distant reader.

There is so much that I love about this text, and with every reading, I discover even more. One aspect that always captures my attention is the way Homer (or the people united under this name, depending on what you believe) takes great care to humanize even the most minor of characters. Homer gives every soldier who gets killed on the field, whether the audience has ever seen him before, at least a mention of his father’s name, and in several cases, much more than that. This is an excellent way to humanize the war. We are constantly reminded that this bloodshed has been going on for nine years, and while to the gods this is just a game for the sake of avenging Hera and Athena’s honor, the Greeks and Trojans are still people with families and stories of their own and who just want to go home.

A common misconception has been that the poem details the Trojan war as a whole. In fact, it takes place over a very short period of time during the ninth year of the war. Yet, in this short span, several crucial events occur. The anger of Achilles is at the center of everything. It begins in one way, changes into something quite different by the end of the poem. For this, and so much more, Achilles’ development as a character is among my favorite aspects of the story.

Of course, Achilles story is so much bigger than just him. When he withdraws from combat and begs his mother to have almighty Zeus avenge his honour (the Greek τιμή, or ti-meh, which translates as “esteem, honour, worship,” was a very important concept for the ancient Greeks), he has an opportunity to reconsider his path in life: should he sail home and enjoy a long life, only to be forgotten, or should he remain at Troy, doomed to die but gaining everlasting glory? What purpose will his life serve? His dilemma is central to the poem, and therefore echoed throughout by other characters in other places. On many occasions, the Greek leaders express a desire to go home, only to be dissuaded each time. They all have reasons of their own, but in the end, they must ask themselves whether they are ready to put nine years of sacrifices behind them, rendering them worthless. In the end, the answer – as we all know – is no. Ultimately, the Iliad is a poem about war and about the meaning one chooses for one’s life, knowing that it will, of course, end.

The Iliad has been my favorite work of literature for many years, never ceasing to surprise and teach me – I can only wonder what new things it will reveal to me in the future. Whether in the original or in translation, on the page or on audio, this is a rich and complex text that should be read at least once. I can now say that I have had a very positive audio experience with it; the 2014 audiobook version is one I will likely return to in the future.

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