Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Iliad by Homer translated by Alexander Pope

The overpowering wrath of Achilles is no match for all too human Hector and his beloved city

Agamemnon, chief of the Greek armies assembled to defeat the walled city of Troy, grievously insults Achilles, his best warrior, by appropriating his war prize, the beautiful slave Briseis. Achilles then decides he’s had enough of the whole glory and honor thing, and removes himself and his fearful Myrmidons from the fight. Without Achilles, the Greeks in battle are overmatched by the newly emboldened Trojans. Meanwhile, Hector, crown prince of Troy, must rally his people and comfort his wife, all the while staving off the destruction of his culture just because his pretty boy younger brother abducted a Greek wife. After that introduction, there are lots and lots of killing: arrows through jaws, heads lopped off, javelins through hearts, steaming entrails falling to the mud. Lots. Once kind Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend, is killed by Hector, Achilles goes on a rampage that concludes with the death of Hector and the ignominious drawn out degradation of his body. King Priam goes to Achilles’ tent in the dead of night and humbly asks for Hector back and the book ends with Hector’s royal funeral.

The Iliad is one of the foundational classics of Western Civilization. The characters are completely recognizable, fully three dimensional – responsible Hector, inhuman Achilles, sneaky Ulysses, regretful Helen, arrogant Agamemnon, gentle Patroclus.  The list of characters includes the Olympian gods, who aren’t above fighting dirty. Like Dante, the poet uses humble metaphors to strike an emotional chord. Scene after scene concerns a parent’s protective love for their child. The stakes are huge, especially for the Trojans – their culture will be destroyed if they lose.

The gods hardly ever appear as themselves, but take a human form. For them, this all encompassing war is entertainment, but for the humans, it’s life or death. I loved the beautiful description of Achilles’ shield - forged by a god; it depicts the sun and the moon, the ideal Greek life in peace and Greek life in war. It took me a while to get used to the depiction of women here– fully human, fully respected by their family members, however, once captured, the women become currency. That is why Andromache, Hector’s wife, fears having to draw water as a slave. The whole idea of consent is a modern one, apparently. And it does seem that Briseis, after her entire family was killed, had made her peace with being Achilles’ concubine. She weeps for Patroclus, who was nice to her.

I am not that eager to return to the poem – the endless hacking and the decapitations and the soldiers slipping on the gore caused by the human sacrifices started to get to be too much, started to bore me. A huge chunk of this falls in the Song of Roland and Aeneid prior to television teenage boy entertainment. Most of these pages were exactly like a video game. Or like a Red Sox/Yankees game.

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