Reviews of The Iliad (ca. 700 BCE) and related work
The Iliad (ca. 700 BCE)
Read in 2021.
Read in Theodore Alois Buckley’s “literal” 1851 translation, plus fragments in other translations.
Gods pouting over men pouting over women.
A fantasy based on historical events 400–500 years earlier, in the Bronze Age. Up until Heinrich Schliemann dynamited his way into the city of Troy at Hissarlik ca. 1873, it was doubtful whether the story had any factual basis. It’s certainly loose in its fictionalization, and mostly for the worse.
The two most famous episodes of the Trojan War are how it started with “the face that launched a thousand ships” and how it ended with the Trojan Horse, the death of the superhero Achilles, and the sacking of the city. Neither beginning nor ending are present in the epic. There are some flashbacks and flash forwards, including one possible account of Achilles’s death, but the epic covers only the middle part of the war. Later literary theorists have concluded from this that “the epic” is distinct from “the dramatic” and from “the lyrical” partly in that it has no curve of rising and falling tension. The action is described at a virtually uniform pace and tension. It is all apex, all thunder, but there are certainly flourishes of lyricism in the constant use of poetic devices to heighten the violence.
The Iliad is dominated by the rich upper class of Greek and Trojan society, a class identified with the martial heroes of that society. The amiable meeting of two nominal enemies, Diomedes and Glaukos, in book 6 illustrates that class is more important than which side you’re on, as it would be again in European medieval battles. Battles don’t seem to be fought in credible formation. Common soldiers do exist, but the author treats them with contempt. One such man, Thersites in book 2, brings up legitimate questions about why the war is being fought, but the author is careful to frame Thersites as an evil cripple, only half a man, before he even says his piece. Thersites is beaten for his ostensibly rude behaviour and the stupid war rages on for 22 more books.
The testy masculinity of the Iliad must have served the political purposes of the Greek city-states of the Iron Age. If it had been composed a few centuries later, the story’s ideal of manhood would likely have been different: Less vulnerable to criticism, perhaps less eager to objectify and marginalize literal Lesbians and women enslaved for sex by invading soldiers.
Homer sees the war as tragic, but that tragedy is undermined by his love and admiration for the heroes doing their thing. The tragedy is also closely associated with a religion where the gods both symbolize all that is beyond human control and look and act very much like humans, with human-style motivations and great personal concern for humans. The gods have extra magic powers and are immune to long-term consequences but add no meaningful explanations.
Like James Macpherson’s epic poems 2400 years later, the setting is remarkably low on detail, again because the focus is on humans, and particularly the individuals of high status. Even so, there are colourful hyperreal episodes peppered throughout the work that can still grip a reader, albeit briefly.
‣ The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE)
Read in Swedish, and later in English, specifically in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation.
By the near-omission of slavery and the status of women from his otherwise brilliant 60-page introduction to Fagles’s translation, Bernard Knox illustrates the need for Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation. Knox nonetheless goes over the centuries of scholarship with a light touch and explains that Odysseus’s trick of introducing himself to Polyphemus as Nobody (outis for ou tis) is not just a pun but a fucking double-layered pun. The other Cyclops inquires, “If nobody’s killing you...”, using the form mê tis for the hypothetical, which sounds just like mêtis, “craft”, Odysseus’s chief weapon.
Slave and female characters contribute to the narrative and help elevate it above The Iliad and above many genre fantasy works of the modern era. This is the most essential ancient epic because of its sweep and peacetime setting. It strays from the point, but over richer emotional territory than the original: Great temptations, terrible injuries, camaraderie, monsters, etc. Unlike The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), it is not the vainglorious story of some war or king. It is about slightly more ordinary people, with stronger sensuous elaboration and much stronger literary structure. As such it contains a seed of the novel.