33. The Iliad, Homer, Translation by Richmond Lattimore

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33. The Iliad, Homer, Translation by Richmond Lattimore

Post  jrpstonecarver on Mon Nov 23, 2009 8:02 pm

I may be showing my lack of cultural sensitivity here, but I pretty much hated every word of The Iliad. Honestly.

I am warned that some of my reaction may be the result of the translation. A friend - who reads both ancient and modern Greek fluently - tells me he dislikes the Lattimore translation. I suppose another translation might be better, but I can't believe it would make that much of a difference, as many of my complaints were with the content.

I realize that I am reading something that was written a long, long time ago. Thousands of years ago, in fact. Things have changed since then, but still, this really got up my nose.

Let's take something simple: half the text was a list of who killed who, some identifying description about the combatants, and the specifics of the kill. "Bob, who comes from Muncie Indiana and is the son of a tailor and a grocery clerk, killed Joe, who came from Arcadia California and managed a discount clothing store, by stabbing him with a spear in the head. His brains splashed out and he fell, with the dark mist closing over his eyes. Then Bob stripped off Joe's armor." Pages and pages of that sort of thing, varying only with the descriptions of the people and the nature of the killing stroke. To say it was monotonous would be putting it politely.

Then there was the matter of names. Hundreds of names, I suspect, of both people and places, that mean nothing to me. It was boring now, and I wonder about how it would have gone over when it was written. How many people would know those names and places even at the time?

The gods and their meddling bugged me too. Both the Trojans and the Greeks wind up praying to - and taking offense at - the perceived actions of Zeus and the other gods. It's pretty funny (taken from a modern point of view) that Zeus changes his mind so often about who is important and will therefore get the glory of the battle. But in all honesty I got really tired of the constant interfering and bickering among a bunch of nonexistent entities. They were the excuse used for whatever really happened in the battle, and it showed.

I was also reminded of modern athletes who cross themselves or otherwise perform some obvious prayer after scoring or winning in some sporting event, only the Greeks and the Trojans were at least honest enough to admit that the gods could also favor the other side.

On top of that I found the constant descriptions of the offerings to the gods got more than a bit revolting. So many animals and people were killed (just in this one book) to keep the gods happy. And what does Zeus need with all those bits of the fat of the various animals slaughtered in his name?

In the end the gods were more of a distraction and an annoyance than any real part of the story. Maybe if I was a believer I'd feel differently.

Human behavior is on display here too, and that drove me crazy. The Trojan and Greek cultures were abominable. Prowess in battle was all important and women were nothing more than objects possessed by men. I'd like to think humanity has improved since this was written, but I'm afraid it hasn't come nearly far enough to make me happy.

Finally we get into actual story issues. For those not familiar with it, The Iliad discusses a portion of the fall of Troy. The infamous 1000 ships came to Troy to get Helen back, but it was something like ten years of siege later that the conflict finally came to an end and Troy was wiped out. The Iliad covers some but not all of that final conflict.

There were all kinds of issues with the story itself. In places it made no sense in terms of locations and descriptions. In other places the meddling of the gods turned a battle into some sort of supernatural contest, which we know didn't really happen that way.

More disturbing, though, are the main events that are and aren't covered in the story. Why, for example, do we spend a lot of time on the siege and the fighting up to and including the death of Hektor, but then not cover the actual fall of Troy itself? We don't even get the death of Achilleus, though we are told he is fated to die very soon, before he can go home. There's something wrong with a narrative structure that doesn't actually tell the main point of the story.

I suppose I could be wrong. Maybe the main point of the story is the death of Hektor, but if so then it should be entirely recast and a lot of other things left out to spend more time on the events going on around him.

And why is the second to the last chapter entirely devoted to a series of games and contests the Greeks play amongst themselves after Hektor is killed? It's chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, and the like, but it seems radically out of place and unimportant. If it really did take place in history - say a champion of the Greeks (who might have been named Achilleus) managed to kill a champion of the Trojans (who might have been named Hektor) - would they really have paused all activity to spend an entire day playing games in celebration? And if they did, wouldn't the Trojans have done something useful during that time? That chapter felt entirely out of place.

The final chapter deals with the return of Hektor's corpse to the Trojans, which is accomplished only with more meddling from Zeus and his buddies. Silly. I would have found the Greeks more human and approachable if they'd returned Hektor's body to Priam themselves, without needing Zeus (prodded by Apollo), Iris, Thetis, and Hermes to make it happen.

In all I think The Iliad shows humanity in an awful light. I found the writing (or perhaps the translation) to be repetitive and stilted. It actively impeded comprehension of the story to the point that I'm not even sure what the author thought the important story points were.

Yes, it's a "classic" in the sense that it has survived over a very long period of time, and it may be important as a result, but I'm sorry to say that my impression of it as literature is not good.

Sadly, I cannot recommend The Iliad.
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