book-reviews

The Iliad

by Homer (translation by Martin Hammond)

Rating: ★★★★

It seems both daring and pointless to try and review The Iliad. As a cornerstone of Western culture, it has no doubt been examined many times far more extensively by people far more knowledgeable than me. Nonetheless, I shall give it a go.

While I'm almost tempted to skip the summary of what the epic is about, I remember that before I actually picked up and read the thing, I was under the illusion that it was the complete story of Troy. This isn't the case. The story actually focuses on an incredibly tiny (if action-packed) part of the war, and most of the text is devoted to only a couple of days. Nor does the poem cover the end of the war, with the widely-famed horse ploy (indeed, that's not even alluded to), and reference to the beginning of the war and all between then and now (ten years) is quite sparse, with the poet assuming that the listener already knows the details of the setting. Even though Achilleus and his destiny are tightly woven with the story, it does not actually cover his death (though that is alluded to), and he stays out of most of the action until the end.

The choice of this part of the story of the Trojan Wars, then, seems a little odd. But when you get into the story, you really start to understand what Homer is doing. The story, set in this grand and glorious setting, with many heroes arrayed against each other, is not a sweeping epic of glory in battle. It is not even, as with the decidedly more upbeat Oddessy, a romantic retelling of a hero's troubles. It is a story about the cruelty of war, the unavoidable nature of fate, about good men cut down in their youth, their parents and wives left distraught, all played out to the direction and amusement of the fickle and merciless gods, who play a sort of combined comic relief and theological explanantion. Without them, it'd be even more grim than it is.

That's not to say there isn't still glory in the poem. Players like Odysseus, Diomedes and Aias all shine brightly (I admit a particular admiration for the unyeilding and apparently unbreakable Aias). That just adds to the humanity of the story, though - rare sparks of exceptional uplift, counterbalanced by Homer's knack of combining a short vignette about a particular young warrior's peaceful life before the war with a brutally precise description of where and how a spear kills him. It's like this.

The main criticism of the text is that its repetitive descriptions and detailed accounts can at times be tiresome to read. I remember one point where a warrior said, essentially 'since you asked about my lineage...', provoking me to mutter moodily at him, knowing I would be suffering through half a page of unmemorable names and places which would never appear again. The exacting treatment of the action scenes, while poignant and informative, really doesn't liven things up, though I found I sunk into and stopped noticing that particular longwindedness after a while. The most boring part for me came quite close to the end, in Patroklos' funeral games - that whole book of the poem, for me, was quite unnecessary (though the bizarre contrast of this competition with the battle previous was somewhat amusing).

A secondary criticism could be levelled at the depth of the characters, though I'm a little less sure on this. Some characters do appear one-dimensional, but given the amount of development left from the Trojan story, it'd be fairer to consider that Homer presumed again a certain foreknowledge. Of the two main heroes: Achilleus is prideful and arrogant, and frankly I'm happy to know that he dies soon after; Hektor, despite being praised all over the poem, struck me as quite boring, with little to his credit but divine favour.

All told, the story is certainly worth reading. It's far more complex than I'd anticipated going into it, and gave me a newfound respect for the achievement of its author. The combination of grim reality with glory and divine intervention means that if it were to be written today, it'd probably find its way to the 'magic realism' bin (I'm thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here), so I opted to label it 'F' for fiction rather than considering it entirely historical, but it certainly sheds light on the values and culture of the time. While the tedious bits could understandably put off a fair few readers, I think it's something which most people of a literary bent should attempt some point, given both its shaping influence on Western culture and the way it communicates human suffering in strife across the ages.