The Iliad: The Epic Poem of Death and War (and Nipples)
The Iliad by Homer, translated by Stanley Lombardo with an introduction by Sheila Murnaghan. This translation was written in 1997, the original text dates back to 1260 BCEish.
Sing, Godddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, and also me like six months.
I’ve talked about my goal to read All the Books Ever; the condensed version is that I’ve committed to reading the Western(ish) Canon for really no good reason except I Feel Like I Should and It’d Be Awesome. There is a side helping of intellectual pretension. Don’t worry, that will fade immediately as you watch me actually struggle through these books.
So, the Iliad. The natural starting point chronologically, it also meant that everything I read afterwards is going to be awesome in comprarison. Here is a spoiler: I did not like this book.
Now this wasn’t a problem with the translation. In fact Lombardo’s translation is astounding and I highly recommend it above all others (trust me: I understand how lightly I got off). His prose is powerful, both so contemporary and so authoritative. There were a few lines that genuinely moved me or impressed me with their gory beauty.
But these lines were few because the Iliad, is, ultimately, a sports highlights reel of men being stabbed through the nipple.
You know how Genesis is clicking along pretty powerfully, and there’s some interesting bits with the void and chaos and then peace and temptation, and then life and murder, and then suddenly: the begets? And the begets are really boring but you read them because you worry it might be important? (And giggle at Nimrod the Hunter because nimrod is an insult Bugs Bunny uses? That’s everyone right?)
Then you are well prepared for the Iliad, which is 15,693 lines of The Begets as Written by Quentin Tarantino. If you ever thought the phone book could use a bit of the ultra-violence my God do I have a book suggestion for you.
I was mostly just disappointed. Since this book is The First I’d assumed it was going to be good. Or at least interesting. I’m not a big fan of war stories but there’s betrayal! And honor! And gay romance! (Which let’s be honest a lot of war stories lack for no good reason.) I was also disappointed because there is NO HORSE. YES. NO HORSE. I kept reading thinking “well these races to win a good cow or fresh woman-slave sure are dull but soon they’ll climb into a wooden horse which is like the one thing I know about the Trojan War” and IT IS A LIE. IT JUST ENDS. With the line “That was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses”. Which is A) not at all an ending and B) more like “breaker of horse dreams” amirite.
So the Iliad, in case you don’t want to look it up on Wikipedia, is about Achilles’ role in the Trojan War. He is a god-like warrior and also a huge dick. Agamemnon, the Greek general guy, steals one of his wife-slaves right before our story starts, and Achilles gets SUPER PISSED. He is all “if I have to share my toys I am GOING HOME” and that one sentence is an perfectly accurate summary of 100% of this poem feel free to use it for your essays boys and girls. He goes and hides in his tent while the rest of the Greeks and Trojans slaughter the hell out of each other for many, many pages.
You may be like “wait, isn’t there a Helen and Paris and stuff?” The Iliad starts in the last year of the war, so all of that is backstory. But yes, Paris kidnaps? (Or she runs off with?) Helen and there’s a big fight about it instead of, I dunno, settling it over a talk or giving women some agency as if they were human beings haha there is a lot of implied rape in this book as if. But at this point all of that doesn’t really matter because the war is now about:
A) The Greeks being like “well, we’ve been here for ages and MOSTLY killed them so we should definitely not stop.” (which always works, right America?!)
B) The Trojans being like “holy crap why are they just slaughtering us this sucks.”
Which really makes you side with the Trojans, though the story mostly takes the Greeks as the protagonists. I say mostly because there are plenty of pro-Trojan parts, including scenes between Hector and his wife Andromache which were easily the most interesting passages. There’s also a huge debate between the Gods over who should win.
[P.S. Hector and the other Trojans keep calling Paris a pretty-boy pansy which means that the casting of Orlando Bloom in an otherwise terrible movie was pretty damn spot on.]
The Gods play an interesting role in this poem. Constantly, they are showing up and confusing people, or teleporting them out of battle, helping favorites win, and generally just mucking about with the mortals. Which I think clashes with the intense individualism and honor-bound mindset of the Greeks. No one is ever made fun of for “running away” when a God zips them out of battle – and yet the men taunt each other for being weak and do ridiculous things to prove their might. Their entire character is based on their ability to live up to their name and perform heroic deeds. And yet that ability is completely up to – amplified, modified, eliminated by – the random whims of their deities.
The Gods are split into pro-Greek and pro-Trojan camps, with Zeus remaining mysteriously aloof, dooming the Trojans without explaining why. Which again for a purportedly pro-Greek story is very interesting. Is this just too huge a tragedy to explain away? Is guessing the will of Zeus a sin? Is Homer actually a Trojan woman slyly writing this story? The latter please.
I want to talk about the women here. First I have to talk about the men, as this book is theirs – and 90% graphic violence and biographies. Here, I have provided an imaginary example that sums it all up:
“Behold, I am Dudeus son of Other Dudeus,
who kept lots of sheep and did heroic things
I will explain our history for several paragraphs.”
“Yeah, well, I think you are a total wuss. For I am the god-like Manium.
And my family history is way more bad-ass!
So here are even more paragraphs
about some other wars you’ve never heard of.
Then Dudeus, who appeared only for this scene,
and likewise Manium, who you’ve never heard of,
fought with spears. And Manium threw his spear
AND IT CUT OFF DUDEUS’S HEAD
BLOOD WAS EVERYWHERE
POURING INTO THE SAND
BRAINS ALL OVER HIS ARMOR
IT WAS SICK BRO. And Manium took his armor
and was like lol laterz and was never heard from again.
Now here is a very similar scene with two other random dudes and a lot of backstory
But this time he dies by getting his LIVER PULLED OUT
It is horrific. Not just because it’s boring, and a boring that spaces out an honestly interesting storyline which is so infuriating. Not just horrific because of the constant gross death happening mostly via the nipple. (I heard about the Greek’s long hair, death-nipples, and tripods so many times. I did not understand why tripods were such a great gift and so researched it. And I still do not understand why tripods are such a great gift. But I digress.)
It is horrific because also there is this second secret story – which only shows its face and then slips away, in quiet gaps, and yet is there again and again. One you can’t ignore it even if you do get caught up in the occasionally cool action-movie parts. Here it is:
The women and children are going to be raped and tortured and murdered and sold into slavery.
Which everyone knows about. Andromache begs Homer to stay behind the lines and protect them. She knows if the Greeks win their son will be sold into slavery or tossed off a high tower. And he holds their infant son and smiles sadly at him and says he can’t promise that, because he owes it to his men.
And the Greeks are constantly selling women off, trading them amongst themselves like they are holographic Charizard cards instead of you know people. Every time a woman is mentioned, it’s not said but there as obvious background knowledge that she’s just been kidnapped from one forced marriage into a new live of slavery. I am not ignorant of history but also when you read about it vs just knowing - ugh. And you know what? Homer doesn’t shy away from it. I would even say (s)he gets it. Because it’s this haunting constant background. Despite it being a story only about men on a battlefield there are women voices whispering in whatever corner they can find. Andromache is a powerful, compassionate character and absolutely steals the show in the few scenes she’s in.
(And Achilles is just a big baby.)
So that’s all very interesting. (Is there a real Homer-was-a-Trojan or Homer-was-a-woman literary theory or am I dreaming idle lit theory thoughts?) And it sort of, but not really, makes up for the rest of the book.
The other story line I appreciated, the heart of the conflict, is the tragedy of Achilles and Patroclus, his “best friend”. (Oh I think we all know.) Patroclus dying as/for Achilles, Achilles’ obvious and consuming grief, is another part where the story became actual story.
(Another aside: You know another part of the story I thought would shop up, and doesn’t? The Achilles heel. That’s pretty basic right? That’s a big thing? So when his death was told to him – by his mother, as a sad and desperate warning – I thought ‘aw yeah ankle biting time I know something again’. Yeah. No. This poem is a long study in crushing disappointment.
I think the loss of his love is the first time that Achilles even understands grief. He’s this big machine of murder who rampages through battle because he’s asked to and it’s all he knows. He doesn’t really understand pain, or loss, because it’s never happend to him – so when he does, he turns back to battle because it’s all hes ever had. He knows he’ll die and doesn’t care. He just wants to take out as many of Patroclus’ murderers as he can before he does.
Including Hector. He kills Hector and drags off his body by horses, mutilating his corpse and refusing it burial. It’s not until Hector’s father comes to his tent and begs for the body that he changes his mind. And the chapter there ends with the two men crying together for their losses, both implicated in each other’s grief of murdered love, and it’s terrible and beautiful.
Only to spoil it the book goes back to boring games where if you run fast you get a sweet bowl and gah.
These threads and moments that I liked were pulled out of a one-hit wonder series where men hit each other and died. I was very tempted to start skimming. But you know what? I NEVER DID. I PERSEVERED. Because I have a skimming complex and can’t even skip the five-page Elf poems in LotR on my billionth read-through.
It took me months to get through, because I’d read a half a chapter before abandoning it for a different book (any other book). But I felt a deep sense of accomplishment when I finished it. It was over! And I never have to read it again! I read the last page mere hours before the new year and it was incredibly satisfying.
I’ve always felt odd having never read the Iliad – it’s such a classic text. I even learned a lot – certainly more of the story than I’d ever heard existed. A week ago I read the expression “like Achilles in his tent” and went “aw hell yeah I got that allusion“… Which is thus far the one time that knowledge has ever come in use. But still.
I am seriously amazed people could memorize this entire thing. Wouldn’t you start to forget who had lost which nipple?!
Would I, then, recommend reading it? Yes. If you have a commitment to the canon, or if you’re interested in war poetry, or if bursting livers really appeal to you. I would not recommend reading it for any other reason than the knowledge of it though; not for its own merits. And, in that case, you’d really be settled by reading the Wikipedia page on it. (Or the Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan – which is genuinely and deeply interesting.)
Which, I know! As a reader! Doesn’t ever feel like really knowing the book! And you will miss out on the side characters which like Homer even wrote a sequel for. BUT you won’t have to read “he groaned and died in the dust” so many times your eyes glaze over.
And this is the last I’ll talk about the book. For my next covered classics I plan to blog as I go, covering my experience “live” in sections versus as an after-summary. But let’s be honest, we wouldn’t want a blow-by-blow of the Iliad because it is literally a blow-by-blow for 500 pages and not even the interesting kind haha I did not say that I am a real book reviewer honest.
Lastly, if you are interested in the Iliad but only in a make-fun-of-it-kind-of-way you definitely want to listen to this podcast review by the amazing Read it and Weep. They are actually funny, unlike me.
The Iliad: FINISHED.
Next: The Odyssey