Monday, 28 May 2012

The Iliad by Homer (4/5)

Goodreads says: Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of
Peleu's son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the
acheans countless losses,
hurling down the house of Death
so many sturdy souls... 

Thus begins the stirring story of the Trojan War and the rage of Achilles that has gripped listeners and readers for 2,700 years. This timeless poem still vividly conveys the horror and heroism of men and gods wrestling with towering emotions and battling amidst devastation and destruction, as it moves inexorably to its wrenching, tragic conclusion. […]

I say: I’ve got two different editions of this book, and my initial intention was to compare the two. However, when I started reading the translated version of the poem, I remembered why I struggled with the Greeks when I was in school. All those names, the rhymes, the names, the choppy translations, the names.

Did I mention the names?

So, I took the easy way out and read the translation by E V Rieu from 1949, which is presented in prose, as opposed to poetic form. Even though I was doing a good enough job with the poetic translation, I was more interested in once again familiarizing myself with the story, and this was a smoother read.

I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting. When we were studying the Greeks in school I always remembered the stories, but could never get the hang of the names. My answer to every question was pretty much he/she/it was Zeus’ lover/daughter/son – it applies to most of them, so I thought it was a good enough a guess as any. But yeah, despite the Glossary at the back of the book, I was still finding it hard to remember all the names. Mostly because they are presented in association with whom their parents were and where they were from. Like so

“Paris killed Menesthius, who lived at Arne and was the son of King Areïthos the Macerman and the ox-eyed Phylomedusa.” – p 132

That irked me to no end. Especially since there were so many people mentioned in this manner who were just being killed off and really didn’t have anything to do with anything. Did Homer really need to mention every single soldier in this battle?

And I am unconvinced that War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy has the most characters of any novel written. I think The Iliad takes that price, but can neither be arsed to research or count.

Apart from the issue with the names, there was an endless array of hyperbole and similes that drove me to near madness.

“At last the armies met, with a clash of bucklers, spears and bronze-clad fighting men. The bosses of their shields collided and a great roar went up. The screams of the dying were mingled with the vaunts of their destroyers, and the earth ran with blood. So, in winter, two mountain rivers flowing in at a watersmeet in some deep ravine, and far off in the hills a shepherd hears their thunder. Such was the tumult and turmoil as the two armies came to grips.” – p 89

Rieu must have had the most awesome time translating this epic poem.

Sarcasm aside, I really enjoyed this. The battle scenes were a ridiculously detailed gory mess that made me cringe, but so fast paced that it was over right after I had uttered my “eeww.” There were so many descriptions of the lifestyle of the different competing armies, and I kept thinking that I want to know more and go further in depth (which I probably will). I fell in love with Achilles and in hate with Zeus.

Seriously, what the hell is his problem?

The arrogance of the gods mixed with the feebleness of the men made for an epic concoction of absolute perfection. I really look forward to re-reading The Iliad, but with a different translation.

*The edition I have is a really nice blue clothbound one with a leather spine that I bought still wrapped in a used book store (both The Iliad and The Odyssey), so I don't have a picture of it. Instead I've added the painting The Wrath of Achilles by Michel Drolling.


  1. Kudos to you for sticking this out! Some of those passages you quoted are annoying indeed. I don't have a strong desire to read this except for the fact that it's a classic and a part of me does want to experience it. But, a bigger part doesn't have your patience! Maybe one day though, if I'm in the right mood. Great review though, it's not often people read The Iliad and post about it on their blogs!

  2. I understand exactly where you're coming from. Greek mythology is so interesting, but it's a complete chore as well. Although I am glad that I read it, in hindsight I feel like I could just as easily read a synopsis of it. Or a children's book version. The story is what was awesome, not so much the writing.