The Iliad of Homer - Richard Lattimore

The Iliad of Homer
Translated by Richard Lattimore
Chicago University Press
ISBN: 0226469409 (Amazon link)

I've never been convinced by Snow's idea of The Two Cultures, [1] but it seems to me that there still remains a sneaking undercurrent of smug superiority around the classics. I doubt many literary critics feel vaguely inadequate because they can't explain how their microwave works, or how GM crops are made, but I've always felt a faint sense of shame at my lack of cultural sophistication when faced with a novelist or artist who's making classical allusions in their work. Frequently, I've only the broadest understanding of the reference. This doesn't exactly keep me awake at night you understand, and I have nothing for contempt for an old-fashioned educational system stressing rote memorisation of passages from Herodutus or Thucydides [2], or rote memorisation of analysis of same, but still I sometimes feel like I'm shamming when reading the arts review sections of the weekend broadsheets.

Homer's Iliad has been on my reading list for several years, but every time someone like Wolfe or Simmons makes classical history and mythology look accessible and entertaining, I bump into comments like this from Lattimore's introduction which scare me off again: "I have allowed anapaests for dactyls, trochees and even iambs for spondees." (Actually, I'm jealous of anyone who gets to use a wonderful word like 'spondees' in a real sentence.)

I'd like to say I finally picked up the Iliad for the noble reason of expanding my knowledge, but the truth has more to do with Simmons' Olympus and the forthcoming Troy film [4]. I though Simmons' SF novel Ilium was superb, but I did have to keep hitting Google to explain who some of the characters were, and why they were important. Simmons recommended the Lattimore translation, so I thought I'd pick that up to get more from the sequel, Olympus, which is out next year. As for the film? I expect it'll have purists and historians howling in dismay, but I like the cinema, and have a weakness for any film which aims to be 'epic', or at least manages to include a couple of sword fights.

So, did I enjoy the Iliad? Erm, yes and no. I've enjoyed other classics more to be honest, and although I'm aware there are entire libraries of work dedicated to increasing my appreciation of the story, in my ignorance I felt that the good bits were buried under a deluge of what seemed to me, a modern reader, curious digressions. I realise that the Iliad should be read in the context of the wider Epic Cycle, and Lattimore explains the curiously structure of the story. I can cope with the Iliad not being the story of the Trojan war, missing such well known bits as the judgement of Paris, the rape of Helen and the wooden horse. I can cope with the central character of the piece, Achilleus, being absent for huge sections of the Iliad. I can even cope with the stilted and formal prose that results from translating poetic ancient Greek into English; I'm prepared to believe that Lattimore's is a superb translation, but the rhythm of the prose is still such that my normal reading speed reduced to a few pages a night. All of the above were easily offset by the fascinating historical content of the document I was reading, and the feeling of privilege that I was reading something essentially written back in the bronze age. (Aside: I was bemused by the curious fact that while everyone is fighting with bronze, animals are getting sacrificed with iron blades.)

Once I adapted to the prose, and got my head around the background material I was intrigued, finding the story to be rather less romantic or admirable than I expected - what we have is essentially a big gang fight between, putting it crudely, pirates/warlords with poor military technology and, apparently, bugger all tactical sense. Things generally consist of two shifting mobs hurling insults, with one hard man out front daring someone to take him on, before running back to his mates when things get hairy. In a tale where a woman can be second prize to metal work, the whole war seems less to do with the love of a woman than personal grudges and the potential for booty. Every kill is followed by gleeful looting of the armour, and all major plot events are occasioned either by someone huffing that they're not getting their fair share, or the gods tricking someone. I'm being harshly simplistic here I know, but while the vivid depiction of battles [3] didn't shock me, the murder of a surrendered foe, or human sacrifice of twelve enemy youths during a funeral by the 'hero' did. This depiction of a society with cultural values so similar and yet so remote from my own was as fascinating as any of the more famous passages, but made me wonder why this work was such a keystone of a traditional civilised education. Powerful and dramatic? Yes. Admirable and instructive for young minds? Hardly (but they'll lap up the gory sections). Update: The more I read around the topic, the more I appreciate The Iliad's historical importance. My point stands though - I don't recall many well educated English men of past generations quoting comparable documents like, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

So what did I find difficult or off-putting about the Iliad? Well, there's the small matter of huge sections in the middle being dedicated to Someone-I've-not-heard-of being killed by Someone-else-I've-not-heard-of. Having each killing be accompanied by a fully family tree of each protagonist - and probably a description of their homeland, its chief exports and main geographical features - doesn't actually make me interested in them from a dramatic viewpoint. I realise some of them feature in the wider Epic Cycle, but most are the equivalent of the background casualties in a crowded battle scene. Even when the drama returns to the main characters, the digressions sometimes surface to dilute any buildup of tension. For example, things get very exciting near the end, once Patroklos dies and Achilleus re-engages in the war. But do we need four pages describing the decoration on the new shield Hephaistos forges for him? Or after the death of Hektor, I again found myself wanting to skim through the seemingly endless races and games and get back to the plot. I appreciate the role of funereal games, and am aware of the respect being shown - but it still breaks the flow of the narrative. I have a new appreciation for how easily Simmons could inject SFnal elements into the tale, but I can't help wishing he'd posited a time travelling editor too. I know, I know, I'm a philistine, criticising one of the cornerstones of Western literature, but this is my book-log and that's the honest reaction I had as a casual reader.

Overall, I'm very glad I finally got around to reading Homer, but maybe I'll wait until next year before I tackle The Odyssey. (Actually, I read it very soon after this.)

[1] Actually, if I was to be honest, I'd have to admit that I think there is somewhat of a separation, but it's generally one way. In my (limited) experience, there are many more scientists who can do a creditable job with a "What do you do?" party conversation [1b] with someone in the humanities than vice versa. Or else those right brained folk do a better job of concealing annoyance when asked silly questions, and just make us feel like we've not embarrassed ourselves by not even understanding what area they work in. (Experiment: ask a scientist to name five artists. Ask an artist to name five scientists. If the results are symmetrical I'm talking nonsense born of reverse academic snobbery.)

[1b] In as much as any scientist I've ever known can manage any conversation, let alone at a party. This has included me, but as I now program for a living I no longer get invited to parties. Which is actually handy, as it avoids me having to lie about my career when asked, you know, make up something less boring and embarrassing, "Oh, I'm in accounts."

[2] For the record, I've read both of them too. Blame Gene Wolfe for that one, with an additional nod to my friend Shane Hassan for Thucydides which he actually liked being made to read at school.

[3] It's just occurred to me that were someone to make a faithful film version of the Iliad, it'd pose an interesting dilemma for educators. I always find it quite funny when school parties are taken to see trendily accessible versions of curriculum material, like Baz Luhrman's Romeo & Juliet. Currently, there's a lot of editorial space being given to the phenomenon of religious groups encouraging everyone to go see Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the central spiritual message being judged to outweigh the depiction of explicit and bloody violence normally decried by such groups. I imagine a similar problem would come with a celluloid version of passages like:

"Idomeneus stabbed Erymas in the mouth with the pitiless
bronze, so that the brazen spearhead smashed its way clean through
below the brain in an upward stroke, and the white bones splintered,
and the teeth were shaken out with the stroke and both eyes filled up
with blood, and gaping he blew a spray of blood through the nostrils
and through his mouth, and death in a dark mist closed about him."

Actually, the eyes filling with blood reminds me of Tarantino's Kill Bill, making me wonder what his take on the Epic Cycle would be like...

[4] Update: I've now seen Troy in the cinema. It's surprisingly dull. It's surprisingly badly acted [5]. It's surprisingly different to the original story. It's surprising that I don't want to rant for longer about how I didn't like it, but although dissecting bad films is one of my favourite thing, in this case really I couldn't be bothered. However, every cloud has a silver lining; in this case watching the film made me gain a retrospective appreciation for the power of the original story. Okay, so I struggled through the verse, and I could have done without some of the longer digressions, but I didn't expect to be thinking, "You can't do that to one of my favourite stories! ... Hang on, when did The Iliad become a favourite? Just because Achilles isn't coming across as rage incarnate - oh."

[5] Updated update: On reflection, they had all the right actors, just in the wrong roles. Here's how I'd improve the film: make Orlando Bloom Patrokles, and don't call him "a cousin". Make Sean Bean Hektor. Make Brad Pitt Paris. Make Eric Bana Achilles. Those who doubt his ability to play a convincing psycho like Achilles are referred to his earlier film Chopper.

[6] I can't resist adding a pointer to JamieR's hilarious reading notes on The Iliad. Generally I agree with his editorial comments, he's buried some decent analysis beneath the flippant humour.

Posted: Sat - May 1, 2004 at 04:01 AM