Nicholas's Reviews > The Iliad: A New Prose Translation

The Iliad by Homer
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's review
Oct 29, 2008

really liked it
Read in November, 2008

What can be said about the Iliad that hasn't already been? It's hard to be critical in any fashion to something so monumental, something meant to be spoken and accompanying a lyre. If he weren't 2,800+ years dead and probably a conglomeration of folks, I'd grab him by his beard and yell 'Who Does This??' Well, apparently a lot of folks back in the way back.

In 21st century parlance, the Iliad could be considered Homer's 'minor' work - ;) -, in comparison to the often-lauded The Odyssey, held in higher esteem by everyone I've ever come across. Still, knowing that the Iliad precedes Odysseus's long journey, I wanted to embrace my inner Ass, or Mule if you will, and challenge myself to read them in chronological order. It is tough going in the beginning, especially if you don't know which God begets which, what has preceded the 10th year at the shores of Troy, or how many classical Greek names Homer could have memorized. My edition topping out at 400 pages, I felt like I might be carrying this book around in my bag for awhile.

But perhaps unsurprisingly (it's not a towering work for nothing), as the fighting started I myself slowly became wrapped around the competing threads of Homer's descriptive warfare. And being as I read books primarily for intellectual stimulation as opposed to gory blood-lust, it was quite pleasant to watch the Iliad turn into a page-turner right before my eyes -even knowing the outcome of Achilles and Hektor beforehand. I kept saying to myself, it's not 'The Iliad' for nothing. And as one reads on into the depths of Homer's heroic fancy, you just have to simply marvel at how all of this was composed in poetic form and delivered by a humming bard with no access to the written word. It's just stunning.

There is a lot at work in his story-telling style, especially regarding the interplay between God and Man, God and God, and the constant analogies omnipresent between Nature and Man. The Gods seem infallible, yet the Achaian Diomedes injures Aphrodite. They play nudging, quarrelsome roles in mankind's affairs like a chess player observing a game board, but never directly move the pieces (except occasionally to save a loved-mortal from certain death). But they push the results: they plant ideas of escape or fury, forge armor, seed conflict, and generally avail themselves in portentous manners. It was the most interesting device Homer employed for me; what language or guise or form mediates the Godly interplay, how are their decisions made, how are they seen by mortals? Men interpret strong winds, lightning, the turning aside of a spear, the snap of a bowstring, as events manifested through the will of the Gods. Their prayers are heard, their sacrifices responded too, their courage rewarded. Yet the Gods are unpredictable, overzealous, apathetic, fearful of each other, and most of all, impulsive.

One can't talk about the Iliad without discussing its gruesome detail and blatant war-mongering machinations. The constant back-and-forth charges between Achaians and Trojans could be tiresome to readers, but I found Homer's description refreshing in its antiquated form and unpredictable storyline. Also, there is a distinct lack of hatred during the killing (aside from Achilles), and honorable codes, sometimes flummoxing 2,000 years later, yet govern their force.

Homer's ability to convey emotional nuance and subtlety rested squarely on the consistent insertion of parallels between behavior in nature and behavior in mankind; "as the (insert natural behavior), so (insert person and outcome)." As fields of wheat are reaped in autumn, so Achilles reaped his Trojan foes. One can see how a variety of natural scenarios, guidelines for godlike interplay, and family legacy could begin to be molded together in the mind of a masterful story-teller before a group of fireside listeners, and one gets the feeling if only we were so lucky.


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