I shunned The Iliad for a long time. I encountered the book when I was very interested in primary texts. What I mean by primary texts is reading something like the American Declaration of Independence as a primary work, rather than someone else’s book about American history, which would be a secondary text with that author’s interpretation built-in. I wanted to be exposed to things in their natural state and come to my own conclusions about what I was reading. The first giant problem I encountered was one of translation. The Iliad is a long book and has been translated hundreds of times. Looking at a few different translations, it became apparent to me that they read somewhat differently. For example, here are the opening lines of The Iliad translated into English verse in 1715 by Alexander Pope:
“Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove! “
Compare that to an English verse translated by William Cowper, edited by Robert Southey in 1870:
“Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.”
It is also possible to find The Iliad translated not into poetry, but rather into English Prose. The version of The Iliad that was included in the “Great Books of the Western World” collection is the 1898 prose translation by Samuel Butler. The opening of that version reads like this:
“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.”
I had no interest in spending all the time and energy reading the long epic Iliad, only to discover I was reading an inferior “version”. At the time, I did not want anyone’s “version”, I wanted the real thing. To get what I wanted as a primary text, it seemed that what I would need to do was learn to read Homeric Greek. That wasn’t something I was prepared to do, and it wasn’t clear to me that there wasn’t one single authoritative translation in English. As there was an entire shelf of “important” books I wanted to read, not just The Iliad, it was very easy to move on to something else rather than sort out the issue of English translations.
There is also the question of Homer, of who Homer was and what do we know of his life? Homer was believed by the ancient Greeks to be the first and greatest of the epic poets. We know almost nothing of his life, and the traditional image of Homer is one of a blind man. We don’t know if The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by one man named Homer, or another fellow of the same name. 🙂 These poems and stories seemed to have existed in an oral tradition for a thousand years in Greece before they were written down. Homer may have been an outstanding poet/bard who traveled and recited/sang these epics out loud to audiences. It is thought that he maybe lived between 800 BC and 700 BC, and during his life someone decided to transcribe and write down the epics using this new-fangled tool named an alphabet. No one thinks that the blind Homer was the actual person writing things out on the papyrus scrolls. Another Greek fellow would have had to do that for him. In fact, over the centuries there were thousands of copies of Homeric epics made on papyrus scrolls. Adding to the challenge of translating and rendering The Iliad from the original Greek into English, is the question of which Greek copy to take as the original? Some of the Greek copies vary from version to version over the long 15,000+ line poem. The pair of Greek Homeric epics have taken on a life of their own in the 3000+ years they have been part of the Western literary tradition.
The main themes in The Iliad are the concepts of glory earned in heroic battle, the respect an honorable man earns with accomplishment, wrath – particularly the Wrath of Achilles, a wrath born of his personal rage and wounded ego, and the role of fate in determining the outcome of a man’s life. I suppose one of the reasons that this book has never ceased to be relevant is that humankind has not yet stopped waging war. Clifton Fadiman says this in his book The New Lifetime Reading Plan:
The Iliad is probably the most magnificent story every told about man’s prime idiocy: war. The human center is Achilles. The main line of the narrative traces his anger, his sulkiness, his savagery, and the final assertion of his better nature. He is the first hero in Western literature; and ever since, when we talk of heroic qualities, Achilles is somewhere in the back of our minds, even though we may think we have never heard of him.
Even if there were little for us to find in reading The Iliad for ourselves, there are endless artistic responses and references to the work spanning over 3,000 years. Scenes from The Iliad have been portrayed in artwork on Greek pottery, in sculpture, and in paintings for hundreds and hundreds of years. The artists knew the story of Homer’s epic poem, and we gain so much more understanding from the art if we also know the story. Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida takes its plot from a large chunk of The Iliad. Shakespeare is only one literary example of many that have drawn from or referred back to Homer. Sir Michael Tippett, one of the most important English composers in the twentieth century, wrote his own libretto for his 1962 opera King Priam drawing from The Iliad. Even the 2004 epic adventure film Troy is an adaptation of the Homeric epic starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. The Iliad had a life of its own as a poem passed on by oral tradition before it was ever written down, and the story has continued a long life as it adapts to every form of artistic expression that people have developed. If I live long enough, I may see some 3D virtual reality interactive holographic smell-o-vision where I can see Achilles and Hector fight in person.