My first reading experience with Homer’s Iliad was the equivalent of hauling a boulder along a gravel track by a piece of string. I was unused to the weight of classical literature and my mind was exhausted by the long-winded descriptions and detail, excessive slaughter, and exasperating characters. I found great comfort in the thought that after I had finished reading the Iliad, I would never have to read it again.
This spring, in a gust of reckless ambition, I decided to reread it. Whatever induced me to do so, I know not, but I was neck deep before I realised what I might have got myself into. This anxiety did not last long, however, for I was surprised and delighted with what I found.
I mentioned that I first read the Iliad during a time when I was beginning to explore the Great Books. Reading the Great Books and other works of classical literature is like exercising a muscle. In the beginning the work is grueling because the mind is unused to reading such heavy material. But as the reader continues to be exposed to material of the same weight, the mind becomes able to bear it and what was difficult before is now very manageable.
So it was with me. Between the time I first read the Iliad and this spring, I have read numerous classical works both for school and pleasure. My mind is now accustomed to this level of literature. Instead of the heavy boulder I anticipated, the Iliad was surprisingly manageable. Furthermore, because the material was easier to handle, I could spend more energy observing the story itself.
I noticed deeper levels of character present in the people of the Iliad. The Greeks of the Iliad are a very potent and undiluted people: their anger, passion, and wisdom are concentrated and all-encompassing. On the outside, they are hard, brutal soldiers, lusting for war and bloodshed. But on the inside they are men and their emotions are complicated. Achilles is angry, but he is angry because he feels slighted, embarrassed, and cheated.1 When I began to consider the subsurface emotions of each character, I was shocked to find myself sympathising with them, instead of scorning them for their dramatic behavior as I had done in the past.
I also became more keenly aware of why the Trojans are so desperate to defeat the Achaeans. They are not fighting because they believe Paris is in the right. If they had a choice—that is, if Paris did not insist on being so headstrong and arrogant—I think they would have surrendered Helen to Menelaus years ago. But they are not fighting for Helen or the honour of Paris. They are fighting to protect Troy from being sacked; to protect their children from being slaughtered and their wives from being dragged off by the Achaeans.
C.S. Lewis said once that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.”2 It requires a second read to truly comprehend any book. I never dreamed I would be saying this in reference to the Iliad, but life is full of surprises, is it not? It is an odd sensation, and strangely humbling, to feel so at ease with the greatest work in western culture. True, there are parts that seem utterly absurd to me and characters whose actions make me livid, but I am awed by the scope, by the depth, and I can truly say, This book is worthy of the place it is given.
The translation I read was by Robert Fagles. I have heard it said that his translation is the most readable, however as I have never read any translation other than Fagles’ I cannot give my personal word on that point. Fagles’ poetry is rich and strong and begs to be read aloud, though perhaps out of the range of tender ears. Black Ships Before Troy, by Rosemary Sutcliff is a shorter retelling of the Iliad and the Trojan war and is more approachable if you are not yet prepared to grapple with Homer himself. I highly recommend this edition illustrated by Alan Lee. His ethereal drawings add an exquisite dimension to Sutcliff’s text.
Further reading: Here is an article that explains briefly why burial was so important to the ancient Greeks, and why the Achaeans and Trojans are so eager to shame the corpses of their enemies, yet will fight so desperately to save those of their comrades. This article is lengthy, but provides excellent insight on the writing and plot of Homer’s Iliad.
1Whether Achilles should feel slighted, embarrassed, and cheated, and whether his actions are a justified result of those feelings, is another matter entirely. I am inclined to offer him very little grace at this point, but let us be thankful his doom is not in my hands.
2C.S. Lewis, “On Stories”