I have about 2000 draft words on this from the time of reading, nowhere near finished, and not sure if I ever shall finish the review. Aside from theI have about 2000 draft words on this from the time of reading, nowhere near finished, and not sure if I ever shall finish the review. Aside from the minutiae of philosophy, the upshot was that I really didn't get much out of it; these are so clearly old versions of current debates (lacking some of the information / technology / progressive opinion), and the main object of interest was to be reminded that people had such similar thoughts nearly 2500 years ago. Also a bit of a slog for such a short book, which may or may not be the translation. I'm really not a Classicist. ...more
Penguin ed., tr. Robt. Fagles; intro. Bernard Knox
[3.5] I'd like to like the Iliad. It would be convenient to like the Iliad, for discussions about thPenguin ed., tr. Robt. Fagles; intro. Bernard Knox
[3.5] I'd like to like the Iliad. It would be convenient to like the Iliad, for discussions about the canon and such. I like several other epic poems. I like old war films. But this? So much of it is just a bloody casualty list (pun more or less intended), plus a soap featuring the gods (sometimes amusing, depending how detached I felt). I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it a lot more in a film version where you could see movement and action; on the page these endless lists of how so and so, son of old you-know-who, got a spear in the lung, get boring. At least they serve the entirely worthwhile purpose of preserving a historical record.
I've simply never been that interested in Greeks and Romans - with the odd exception such as Catullus, I'd rather hear about the barbarian tribes further north. That must be one of the reasons I rarely got emotionally involved; some speeches and scenes had a pull, sometimes there were moments of excitement and involvement but not with real meaning to me, and they soon passed: it was like watching a match in a sport you're not that bothered about, with teams from places you don't care about either way.
The Iliad's extended rural metaphors of hunting, shepherding and farming were fascinating though, with a vividly Mediterranean sense of place. The frequent mention of lion attacks makes it feel thrillingly close to prehistory. To the default image of non-combatant Greeks as urban chiton-wearers something more atavistic is added. Visualisations of countryside I took from My Family and Other Animals. (Not being a big fan of books from hot places, I haven't read much based around there in between.) Emotions of grief and loss are turned up to 10 in a way that could be seen as Mediterranean, as ancient, or both.
It has its moments too, in the tales of life in the Greek camp, and in Priam's palace, of ancient customs and a time in history, burning torchlight and the imagined sound of drums, and a precipitous life. But I didn't find the poetry as rhythmic and redolent as that of, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and there were more times when I thought instead of the chore of learning the thing by rote which thousands, possibly millions have done over time. Fagles is known as the best contemporary translation, and I chose it from a handful of others in bookshops when I was still at university. The handful of recent idioms don't intrude but it's still a little too prosey for my liking. The first half seemed to feature more repetition as I remember (read in January), though I read the rest more quickly (November). Probably the original just doesn't lend itself quite so well to the sort of verse I now hope for in epic poems - all of which I've read since I first got a copy of Fagles' Iliad.
Also very interesting - and undoubtedly long familiar to classicists - is one of the ideas mooted in Bernard Knox's excellent introduction, that the gods are nothing like gods as one might think of them after being raised in a fairly fluffy version of 20th century Christianity - the actions they make mortals do are a way of explaining irrational impulses and those actions that feel beyond our control, such as falling in love. Some later Greek thinkers appear to imply that man should strive to be better than the gods.
Achilles is interpreted quite differently in adult discussion - the introduction, other commentaries, informal comment like GR reviews - from the way he was shown in the children's versions I knew, or how the story was descibed by teachers (including at primary level). In the junior versions he was quite simply a hero - but otherwise he is criticised a lot, as essentially a brat. He may be a warrior, but I see parallels with the decadent doomed genius artist figure. He's at least as temperamental. However he's characterised, one of the handful of scenes I found really moving was his hearing of Patroclus' death.
Sometimes there are questions in history I can hardly be bothered with because they seem absolutely unknowable and thus just pawns for contemporary opinion. Helen's volition is one of those, and far more reflective of the times of its discussion than, say, the Princes in the Tower. If she existed in the first place, did she run off with Paris or was she kidnapped? We have no access to her own opinion, sometimes contradictory sources written down after centuries of oral tradition of ultimately unknown provenance, a wariness of how a male dominated culture may have recorded her - and her own thoughts, feelings and expectations could have had quite different paradigms from ours. At any rate here, she isn't the passive kidnappee of the junior versions - she wants Paris, even if she has regrets over the political implications.
The history of the text and its reception and influence interests me more than significant portions of the contents: the research into the Yugoslav oral tradition that helped date it, interpretations such as the above, its role in modern and early modern European schooling for the last c.500 years. I had more questions, but wasn't interested enough to read another whole book on it. Did it anyone before the mid 20th century say it encouraged boys to fight at school? To what extent is it part of imperialism, as inspiration?
This is, in a way, to colossally miss the point, - as is my frustration that we never hear anything about the rank and file soldiers: what are they even doing whilst Achilles and co are holding games? - but the ending feels inconclusive, like it's in the wrong place. Doomed Achilles still lives. But people have surely known about cliffhangers long before there was writing.
The Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this translThe Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this translation feel as if they could be chanted and accompanied by drums.
It was scary, as well as fascinating: here is a voice from a time when life everywhere was harsher, when values were different - 1500-2000 years before Buddha or Jesus - and so many things we know wouldn't exist for millennia hence. We are very very far from home. At the same time the larger than life characters are still recognisably human, prone to raw emotions of anger, lust, friendship, sorrow, fear of death.
The book was unexpectedly easy to read in terms of actual structure, though the deep strangeness of the work demanded attention.
I feel driven to write this review whilst uploading some books I read a long time ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh is still haunting, five years after reading.
On a practical note, it's also usefully short and doesn't require the time commitment you need to read Homer unabridged, for example.
Not that I know about ancient Sumerian, but this book reads as if the translator, Andrew George, has done a very good job. His version is highly evocative....more