Bi-Monthly Review: (More) thoughts on Robert Fagles’ Translation of The Iliad

The Bi-Monthly Review is a twice monthly feature of whatever I happen to be reading. Highly informal. Opinions are my own. Try to enjoy.

I gave my first thoughts on this translation of Homer’s The Iliad back at the end of February, when I was in Book Seven…now I’m done and back with more (brief) thoughts!

I decided to read The Iliad for a couple of reasons; 1. I’ve been challenging myself to read more classics, and 2. I wanted to venture out of my comfort zone and commit to reading a text that would expose me to a time and place very different from my own.

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably familiar with the story: The Iliad begins 10 years into the Trojan War, after Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Achaean armies, captures a young woman, refuses to return her to her father, and causes the Achaeans to be struck by a plague sent by the god Apollo as punishment. Agamemnon is convinced that he should return the woman after a prophet explains that her safe return is the only way to put an end to the plague. Pissed that he has to give up his share of the booty (like, literal booty…), and in a tiff with Achilles, the most skilled Achaean fighter, he takes the woman that Achilles had taken as his own prize. Of course, Achilles is pissed, and the story is centered around this intense rage.

When I began reading, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I mean that…I didn’t even know that the epic poem was about the Trojan War, which is a pretty basic detail that most people (even non-readers) probably know. I read the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, which is a modern-verse translation with plenty of extras to guide the reader. The detailed introduction and glossary were great tools that helped me to understand the plot and keep track of which side (Trojan vs Achaean) each soldier was on.

The translation itself is really easy to understand. The most difficult aspect of this book is simply becoming familiar with the characters and which side they are on…but with the glossary, it’s pretty easy to catch on after awhile.

Some of the chapters, or “books” as they’re called, seem redundant, probably because there are only so many ways to describe a battle scene (which make up the majority of the text). And really, many of the lines are incredibly redundant… the same descriptors come up literally hundreds of times (ie. describing the Achaean ships as “fast black ships”). This didn’t actually bother me, especially since I learned in the introduction that these epithets were carefully chosen and repeated to conform to the dactylic hexameter the poem was originally created in.

Some of the most interesting chapters are those in which the gods intervene, oftentimes watching over the gruesome battle scenes as if their enjoying a nice movie…and not brutally slaughtering hoards of mortals below. Probably the most interesting chapter, in my opinion, is “Achilles Fights the River.”

If I may crudely summarize; In Book Twenty-One  Achilles slaughters so many Trojans that their bodies clog up the river and the river god gets pissed and turns into a giant water man and yells at Achilles and then throws all the bodies onto shore and then Achilles makes some weird simile where he compares himself to a pig-boy.

A lot of things happen in this book that I totally don’t understand. Later, a funeral is held for Achilles’ comrade Patroclus, and a bunch of people cut their hair and throw it on the body and then a bunch of animals get slaughtered and Achilles wraps the corpse in animal fat. Anyone have any insight on this???

This book took me several months to get through, but I’d have to say the journey was worth it. I’m gonna give myself a little break from ancient Greek literature for now, but I know that I’ll be reading The Odyssey soon and diving into Sappho.


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