A Foundational Text of our Fucked Up World — My Quick Thoughts on Homer’s the Iliad

The Iliad

Homer (trans. Fagles)

It’s hard to believe that the first time I read the Iliad, I didn’t enjoy. I was in my youth more of an Odyssey guy. That seems insane now. Sure, the first time was in undergrad reading under deadline. It was also the Lattimore edition, well loved by many, but in my opinion greatly inferior to this Fagles edition. And I was younger, and perhaps, in my abhorrence of war, failed to appreciate how straight up gorgeous this poem can be.

Whatever the reasons, at the time I thought of the Iliad as a long poem of fighting without much of interest. I was wrong. It incredible and I’d argue today, greater than its companion, the Odyssey.

As with all classics, it seems silly to write a short review on a vanity website about why it is so important, but I’ll forge ahead all the same.

In this translation, the Iliad is a poem of war, no doubt, but its depiction of it is complex. War is celebrated for the honor it can bring its combatants, for how it strips the world down the essentials of life and death, and for how it decides the history of our families, and our communities. It is without doubt, glorified here.

But its horrors are not overlooked. Hector knows his son will soon by fatherless; Hecuba knows her son is to die. Homer, through Fagles, doesn’t shy aware from the physical horror of war either. Throats are torn out, bodies are ripped to pieces, and brave men die horribly. Perhaps one could read this as audience pleasing gore, but I didn’t. To my reading, it’s the opposite, it reminds you that while these men and women believed war brought honor, it was also a bloody, awful, business.

In addition to the battle scenes, there are moments of quiet humanity. Priam begging for Hector’s body, Achilles’ mourning Patroclus (even if like me you’re sick of that overgrown man child). heroes are complex, not likeable, and human.

There is much that is repugnant about the book of course, slaves are traded for honors, women are clearly second class, and average people die so their lords may have glory. All that is reprehensible, but to my mind, grappling with it is part of what makes this book what it is — a foundational text of our fucked up world.

One more quick note on this edition: Fagles is a master. The language is immediate, accessible and gorgeous.  The introduction is informative for a novice like me. If you’re going to read this (and you should), read this translation.




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