The Iliad

Today I finally finished reading The Iliad. ‘Finally’, because I have a habit of losing interest when I start reading a book, then I’ll put it aside and never finish reading it. It’s not the case that the books I read are boring, to the contrary. It’s just difficult for me to spend less time on other things.

The Iliad is a great work of literature. The book I read (ISBN13: 9780192834058) uses Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. There are many different translations and varying opinions on which is the better, but Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful translation in my opinion. When I read the opening sentence, which is as follows:

Anger now be your song, immortal one
Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

I thought it was some of the most beautiful use of the English language I had read. Soldiers aren’t “killed”, but “darkness veils their eyes”. The writing style of the Iliad, as is to be expected, is a bit different from modern literature. I love how it is written. I noticed especially how frequently similes are used to enhance the ferociousness of the events described in the Iliad. For example:

As ravenous wolves come down on lambs and kids
astray from some flock that in hilly country
splits in two by a shepherd’s negligence,
and quickly wolves bear off the defenceless things,
so when Danaans fell on Trojans, shrieking
flight was all they thought of, not of combat.

The Iliad describes a bloody war with a high number of 241 casualties. Most of the time a ‘kill’ is described in fine details. However, the Iliad is so much more than merely a description of a war. It teaches virtues and vices. Most of all, it takes a fatalistic position that man is bound to destiny. The Gods have a divine plan, and the mortals are the pawns which have to abide by the plan. Already in the beginning of the book it is made clear that it is Troy’s destiny to fall, and that knowledge is also what drives the Greeks to persevere. Achilles knew that if he abandoned the war he would live a long life, and that if he would stay he would receive everlasting glory, but he would also meet his end. Achilles chooses the latter destiny, and his acceptance of that destiny is what makes him the greatest hero of all in my opinion.

I was a bit surprised that the most famous memory of the Trojan War, the Trojan Horse, is not in the book at all. I assume it will be mentioned in the Odyssey, which I’m going to read next. Another surprise was the weak performance of Aeneas. When Achilles attacks in book XX, both he and Aeneas are “far and away” the best fighters of both armies. However, he would have been defeated in his two duels with respectively Diomedes and Achilles had the Gods not rescued him. It’s strange that the Romans claim lineage of such an underperforming hero.

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