Most of us remember laboring through The Odyssey as high school freshmen; we learned at the time that there was another book by Homer—The Iliad—which was about the Trojan War prior to the taking of the City of Troy. If it wasn’t assigned, we didn’t read it, but what an opportunity missed, and how great it is that we can decide to read it as adults!
The subject of this review, the Robert Fagles translation of possibly the greatest epic poem in Western civilization, is a masterpiece of translation, with a great focus on making the ancient poem accessible and enjoyable to the modern ear.
Starting with a 67-page introduction (not to be glossed over!) and six pages of maps of ancient Asia Minor and the Greek world, the story begins with "The Rage of Achilles," the Greeks' greatest hero, born of Peleus and the water nymph Thetis. The story ends about 540 pages later with the burial rites of Hector, Troy’s great hero, after his death at the hands of Achilles. What’s in the middle? Fabulous catalogs of gods and goddesses, vivid and wild descriptions of battle, epithets abounding, heroes and mighty men, delicate nereids shimmering in the undersea world, captains and kings in conflict, sworn oaths, Olympian promises….
Take, for example, the act of dying in battle. In a big war, it’s happening all over the place, pages and pages of it. Homer’s descriptions of falling soldiers are legion and more than a little graphic:
"…he dropped from his war car, gripped by the hateful dark."
"…he crashed facedown, his armor clanged against him."
"…he dropped to his knees, screaming, death swirling around him."
"and the spear broke through his helmet, filling the casque with his brains."
"…he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze."
"…and red death came plunging down his eyes, and the strong force of fate."
"…the horses reared aside, hoofs pawing the air and his life and power slipped away on the wind."
Always fun are the complications of being half-human, half immortal. Both Achilles and Aeneas (the protagonist of the Aeneid, written by Virgil) are sprung from unions of gods and mortals, as are many other soldiers on both sides. These relationships add tremendously to the conflict of force and emotions on Mt. Olympus, Mt. Ida, and the Trojan plain itself, where the gods reign eternal and immortal, yet dabble and play in the affairs of men all bound for death.
Names, names, names---they’re everywhere, as they will be in any epic poem. There is a terrific guide to pronunciation at the back of the book. All the proper nouns are listed there with their phonetic pronunciations, and it does make a difference in appreciation if you go to the trouble of learning how to say the names; after just a little bit of trouble, it quickly gets much easier. There is a two-page section, following the Introduction, on The Spelling and Pronunciation of Homeric Names that may be all you need, but the index in the back of the book is a nice cushion to fall on if the going gets tough.
A mere thirteen pages of text notations at the back of the book assist the reader a great deal in understanding the finer points of the poem. I recommend two bookmarks for this one: one for the text, and one at the back for the end notes and pronunciation keys. The book comes with a ribbon marker; you just need one more.
One final note: with a few exceptions only, this appears to be “a man’s book,” if indeed such a thing can be so-called. There are a few passages of interest where goddesses interact, a precious catalog of the nereids living beneath the sea in the world of Poseidon, an appearance or two by Helen of Argos, whose luxurious encampment in Troy is the cause of the war; but the book is martial in nature; that is, its subject is war; it deals with little else. If you’re looking for romance, justice fulfilled, or an easy read about the inevitable triumph of good over evil, this isn’t it. The hardness of heart and harshness of sentiment in this book is sometimes appalling.
All in all, this is a “challenge read,” and you will be very proud of yourself for completing it. The problem is finding the rest of the story—what happens between the time Hector is buried and the actual taking of the city? For that, you must dig deeply into the canon of Greek tragedies, wherein the ancient playwrights pulled together the events of the story right up to the end with Euripides’ The Trojan Women. The digging is worth the effort, and the story still loves to be told after over 2500 years.