June 6, 2012

The Iliad (#85)

The Iliad by Homer

What I said then:

 Well ... fuck. Maybe Proust isn’t as bad as it gets after all.

 What I say now:

Oh my. So much snark. So undeserved. Seems like every time I sit down to read something I'm really dreading, it ends up surprising the hell out of me. The Iliad was no exception.

There’s a brief passage in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of my favourite novels) in which the characters discuss reading Dante. One of them has a theory, that in order to read The Divine Comedy, you have to be a Christian. “If one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours … [it has] to be approached on its own terms.”

I felt something similar about The Iliad: to read it properly I had to accept Homer’s morality as my own, because you simply can’t read it using contemporary judgement. By our standards, every man in the poem does vicious, horrible things. Slaughter is to be gloried in, slavery is a given, rape will follow victory without any hint of remorse. Hell, the possibility of remorse isn’t even countenanced. It’s an alien time, and an alien way of thinking, and at the beginning of the poem I had difficulty relating to that mindset. I’ll admit it, I was squeamish.

Helpfully, Homer describes his characters’ motivations with wonderful clarity. What at first seem like strange, contradictory ideas about duty, loyalty, glory, piety and honour, come to be perfectly understandable, because they’re expressed with such ease and grace. It took a while, but eventually I sort of learned to think like a Greek, and could accept their alien morality within the confines of the poem. I suspect that clarity, that ability to sum up a man’s thoughts in a moment, or with the application of one perfect simile, is why the poem has endured. Homer can make ancient Greeks of us all.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about Homer as if he was one man. This may not be the case. Because The Iliad and The Odyssey were part of an oral tradition for centuries before they were ever written down, we’ll never know for certain the truth of how they were originally composed. The translator of this edition, Stephen Mitchell, believes there is a single original author, even going so far as to remove a section of the poem that scholars believe was a later addition to the text. I must admit, I’m kinda fascinated by what went on in that ‘lost chapter.’ I might have to look it up in somebody else’s translation.)

As the war rages on the Trojan plains, Homer’s narrative often flits up to Mount Olympus, where the Gods are watching, and scheming. Basically every major plot point comes about because of the intervention of one God or another. From swatting arrows and spears away from their favourites, to raising rivers, the Gods play out their bickering rivalries through the lives of men, the clash of armies. This leads to a kind of heroic fatalism that is present in all the human characters. They know they are merely agents of the Gods’ will and that they can’t change their destiny, so instead they just accept it. Achilles knows he won’t survive the war, but the knowledge doesn’t effect him in the slightest.

It’s also (in this translation, anyway) a total page-turner. Writers like Tom Clancy or Matthew Reilly or whoever should check it out, they might get some ideas. It’s incredibly violent, very gory (turns out there’s a thousand ways to kill a guy with a spear, and Homer delights in describing every single one in excruciating detail) and completely gripping. Late in the poem there comes a moment when, after a few hundred pages of squabbling and using humans as pawns, the gods actually come down from Olympus en masse to join the fighting, on either side. It’s breathtaking, and kind of terrifying (and I couldn’t help but think: ‘Why wasn’t this in that silly Brad Pitt movie? This is friggin’ awesome!’).

I’m noticing a really nice pattern with my reading: it seems like every time I’m really dreading one of the books on my list, it always turns out to be a pleasant surprised. And what do you know, The Iliad was exactly the same. I’d probably never have picked this up if not for my reading challenge, but now I’m incredibly glad I did.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
books to go: 84


  1. We need to discuss Donna Tartt at some stage - i'm a big fan of the Secret Garden, but i couldn't get into the Little Friend at all.

    Good review as always and i'm somewhat tempted to read this now. And i agree about the comment about that Brad Pitt movie - sounds like they missed out on a big chance to make something very awesome!

  2. Yeah, 'Little Friend' is ... not the same. I wouldn't stress too much about going back to it. Apparently there's a new one on the way later this year (she seems to take exactly ten years for each new book), hopefully it's a return to form.