Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 21, 2010

Homer’s Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

As the author of what are now 14 blog posts about James Joyce’s Ulysses (with more to come), I’ve been intrigued to see that a couple of my international readers have found it odd that an ANZ LitLover should be so interested in it. Perhaps they assume that I am only interested in Australian Literature, as if it were somehow strange that I – like any other serious reader – might want to be thoroughly grounded in the great works of the Western canon. So for what it’s worth, I’d like to put it on record that I first read The Iliad many years ago at university, and found it compelling. There are very good reasons why this work has survived for nearly 3000 years and why it was, until comparatively recently, considered essential reading for any well-educated person. In Australia, or anywhere else!

I still think it is essential reading, but I think the modern reader needs a good modern translation. When I heard that one of my favourite writers, David Malouf, had written his new novel Ransom around the themes raised in The Iliad, it was a good opportunity to invest in the Robert Fagles translation which has been so widely praised. Part of my summer holidays has been spent in reading his version because I wanted to be able to see how Malouf had transformed this ancient story. I took my time over this reading, tackling at least one of the 24 books of The Iliad each day and savouring the experience.

As the excellent introduction by Bernard Knox explains, The Iliad is rich in themes and characterisation, but above all else it explores the notion of rage. Intemperate rage is part of our daily lives in modern city life: there is ‘road rage’, ‘supermarket rage’, ‘telemarketer rage’ (I’ve felt this one myself) and ‘ugly-parent at school or sports-ground rage’. It can, tragically, be engendered by much more significant provocations: the entire civilised world was enraged by the Holocaust; Americans and their allies were enraged by 9/11; Victorians were enraged by arsonists on Black Saturday, and we are all enraged by child abuse. It is part of the human condition to feel rage from time to time; what makes us civilised is that we control it, sometimes harnessing it into a temperate response, and sometimes learning to accept the shortcomings of others as just part of the trials of life.

In The Iliad Homer shows us the effects of blind fury in the character of Achilles. The story begins with the Achaeans at war with Troy and the division of spoils. No woman reading this can ignore Homer’s casual assignation of women amongst the spoils of war – it is deeply, powerfully offensive and confronting, the more so because the focus is on the feud between Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean army, and its most prestigious fighter Achilles – their argument being about possession of the girl Briseas. Nobody is interested in her, and even Knox in his introduction neglects to give a name to the girl for whom Briseas is to be traded.

What matters in The Iliad is the feelings of Achilles. Agamemnon has been assigned the girl Chryseis and her father comes to ransom her. Agamemnon refuses to hand her over. Men went to war at this time out of loyalty to a leader but also to enrich themselves with the spoils of war. Possession of women, especially if they were of high rank, enhanced their status, and Agamemnon isn’t about to part with her without good reason. Chryses, her father and a priest of the god Apollo, prays for help, and Apollo sends a plague on the Achaeans. Agamemnon is resolute, but is finally swayed by the pleadings of his men and the prophecy of Calchas – agreeing to ransom her on condition that Achilles surrenders his booty, Briseas in her stead.

So be it. Note it, and consider it, and then move on. What else can we do? The man wrote his tale in the late 8th century BC and it’s a bit late to ask him to include the feelings of the booty now…

Why is Achilles so very angry about this? Because it makes him feel worthless. Men who chose the honour and glory of warfare rather than the security of a long life at home expected to receive both reward and respect, and Agamemnon denies him both:

You are nothing to me – you and your overweening anger!
But let this be my warning on the way:
Since Apollo insists on taking my Chryseis,
I’ll send her back in my own ships with my crew,
But I, I will be there in person at your tents
To take Briseis in all her beauty, your own prize –
So you can can learn just how much greater I am than you.  (p83, lines 213-221)

So, like an overgrown kid taking his bat and ball home, Achilles sits out the battle, sulking on the sidelines until events (and the gods) conspire to make him change his mind. Achilles is a petulant brat, deserting his compatriots and risking the outcome of the battle for Troy.

So why is this worth reading, this tale of one man’s rage? Because Homer contrasts him with Hector, son of Priam, showing both that a civilised man can temper anger and use it wisely, but also that civilisation – represented by the civilised city of Troy in contrast to the rough-and-ready tents and disorderly conduct outside its walls – must be ready and able to defend itself against brute force. When it cannot do so, it is doomed to be destroyed, as Troy is.

Hector is, as Knox says in his introduction, a ‘complete’ man – compassionate and strong, fond of his family (father, mother, wife and child) yet ready to risk his life in their defence. It is his fate to die when Patroclus, the best friend of Achilles is killed in battle and Achilles is stung into action, his rage now deflected into revenge against the Trojans. Hector’s body is desecrated when Achilles still not in command of his emotions ties him to a chariot and drags him round and round the burial mound of Patroclus, an image quite shocking even in the context of the violence of battle portrayed so vividly time and again.

In contrast to the savagery of battle, the intransigence of Achilles and the vilification of his victims, we see the courage and dignity of the old man Priam when he humbles himself to Achilles in order to take his son’s body back to Troy for proper burial:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before –
I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.
(p605, lines 590-591)

This is an astonishing act, to kiss the hand of your son’s killer in order to retrieve his body and save it from further degradation. It is a lesson in humility that would challenge us all.

The modern mind, especially in a secular society, is also challenged by the intervention of the gods in this story. One of the most interesting aspects of their role in The Iliad is the tension between the free will of man and fate, for sometimes (as Knox says) the gods can be frustrated by man, or by each other. Greek gods were like a family of capricious adolescents, representing different personality types and symbolic of inexplicable events. Zeus, father of them all, is an arrogant commander-in-chief; he has a tiresome wife called Hera, and a veritable cacophony of relations who take sides in the affairs of men as and when it pleases them.

The reasons why the gods intervene are mostly trivial, but the consequences of their choices are momentous. Prayers to this one or the other can make rivers overflow their banks or opponents vanish into the mist at the very moment of impending death. Zeus the implacable mastermind can be persuaded to allow interventions as long as they do not contravene his grand plan. Yet despite this the reader feels that the major players in this tragedy are in command of their own destinies and that their choices are their own.

The other thing I like about The Iliad is that it illuminates a way of life long gone. In Book 11, p317 lines 745-753, Nestor’s cup is described, and suddenly those ancient pieces of pottery in European museums come to life. They have a context, and a history that becomes unforgettable after reading these lines. So too in Book 23, the funeral games in honour of Patroclus and his booty as rewards for the best and bravest show the value that the ancients placed upon heirlooms – cups, swords and shields – investing these trophies with a significance that still resonates today when we view crown jewels, coats of arms, and our heritage on coins and banknotes.

But the Games in The Iliad do more than that: they give Homer the opportunity to show that a dispute over who won a horse race can be resolved with dignity and honour, anger moderated by reason and forgiveness. It takes Achilles a long, long time to be restored to humanity. Even in Book 24, he is, says Apollo, a man without a shred of decency in his heart (p589, line 47) and he berates the other gods for ‘their deathless hate of sacred Troy’ (p589, line 31). ‘What good will it do him? What honour will he gain?’ (p590, line 62) and in the end only Zeus can bring Achilles to reason, insisting that:

Achilles must receive a ransom from King Priam
Achilles must give Hector’s body back. (p591, line 94-5)

That Zeus does not have the final word in this is shown by Achilles insistence that Priam not see his son’s body because he fears it will enrage the old King, and that in turn would reignite his own fury.

The Iliad is a wonderful epic, and I can’t wait now to read Ransom to see what Malouf does with it!

Update: 10.3.13
BTW Do read this fascinating short article on the Melville House website about how using linguistics, scientists have dated The Iliad to 762 B.C.E. (give or take 50 years).

Update: click here to see my review of Ransom by David Malouf.

Author: Homer
Translator Robert Fagles
Introduction: Bernard Knox
Title: The Iliad
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Deluxe Edition 1998
ISBN: 9780140275360
Source: Personal library, purchased at Tim’s Bookshop Camberwell $19.95.


Responses

  1. David Malouf writing Ransom has inspired me to read the Iliad in its entirety as well, which I’m currently doing a book at a time (in a very vivid translation by Stanley Lombardo). I’ve been pleasantly suprised by how engaing it is given its age and canonical status, I’m feeling very pro-Trojan and so enraged at the moment!

  2. I agree, a book at a time is the way to go, it gives you time to digest it as you go. I think I’m pro Trojan too – though it wasn’t them that gave us democracy1

  3. […] (at university) but I re-read it in the Robert Fagles transation while I was away on holidays (click here to read my impressions about it) because I wanted to be able recognise how Malouf has reworked it.  That’s not necessary of […]


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