For the last few years, I’ve occasionally passed time by thinking of the shortest way to become literate in the Western literary tradition. In other words, what is the smallest number of books one can read, and which books, to say one is familiar with the general outline of Western literature?…
Just this afternoon I finally finished Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. “Finally,” partly because I should probably have read it years ago, and partly because it took me a solid two months to get through – slow going, even at the more relaxed reading pace I’ve adopted since graduating university.
So, I thought I’d share a few impressions from the epic. For one, like The Odyssey, it began in media res, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. Unlike The Odyssey, it also ended in media res. I thought that may happen as I neared the end, since there were several events I know happen during the war that there simply wasn’t room for in the volume I held, but I didn’t expect it to just… stop.
Akhileus struck me as mopier than I expected. One of the most famous heroes in Western literature spends the vast majority of the poem moping in his tent. I’ve heard enough synopses of The Iliad to know that Akhileus was a moody one, but I expected to see more of the poem’s best-known character. He did make up for it when he finally did emerge to fight, and seemingly single-handedly turned back the Trojan army.
If Akhileus came across as too moody for my taste, though, the other heroes carried the epic brilliantly. The poem is more action-heavy than I expected – in fact, most of the book describes combat, and Homer spares no detail in describing who killed whom and how. Homer uses (and Fitzgerald translates) his language beautifully. His metaphors were always vivid, though perhaps a bit repetitive with some imagery. He describes men as lions and cattle, for example, several times.
I also liked the multitude of speeches, though I did find it hard to imagine how some of these men found time to stand and talk during battle. I also noticed that apparently when a Greek wanted to propose something, he first had to set forward his credentials by giving his family history, and acknowledge the credentials of his fellows. An inefficient mode of speech, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.
Overall, I really enjoyed the epic, though I do prefer The Odyssey. It’s something I needed to read eventually, but I’m always glad to read a classic and see immediately why it’s held in such high esteem.…