Top positive review
4 November 2016
When I first read The Iliad, I was way too young to fully appreciate it. I understood, of course, the backstory - a spiteful goddess is left off a wedding invitation list, she retaliates by giving the Trojan prince Paris a golden apple to reward to the best-looking goddess (because that can’t go wrong), he picks Aphrodite because she promises him the incomparably beautiful (and already married) Helen, angering the other goddesses in the process, Paris selfishly steals Helen (and a lot of treasure) from her husband Menelaus, proud blowhard Agamemnon makes the Greeks attack Troy, they spend ten long years in a siege, and then . . .The Iliad begins.
Some of the more memorable moments from the Trojan War, like Odysseus’s Trojan horse and Achilles’ death by an arrow to his famous heel, aren’t even in the book. What we do get is mostly Achilles in a snit over being insulted, how many ships everyone brought, and endless lists of who got killed. And a lot of sacrificing and roasting meat. It seemed to me like the more interesting parts of the story came before and after The Iliad, not during it.
I think, though, that if I had read this translation instead of the tedious one I read as a child, I might have felt differently. Here Robert Graves chooses to render most of the work in prose, reserving verse for certain "dramatic and lyrical occasions" which seem to call for it. The poetry is "poetic" in English, with rhyme and meter, giving a sense of what the original might have felt like to the listeners in ancient Greece as they heard the dactylic hexameter. The overall result is a readable, entertaining narrative that is still faithful to the original.
One thing that struck me about the story is how violent it is, to the point of absurdity, with every imaginable death by spear described with gruesome relish (and a large helping of irony). There are eyeballs popping out, heads rolled like bowling balls, and characters still able to make impressive speeches while holding on to parts of their livers. I got the feeling that Homer (whoever he was, if indeed he was one person at all) was having fun grossing out his listeners. There is comic relief also, such as in the character of the elderly Nestor, who recalls his glory days repeatedly and at length, describing his heroic feats with a certain amount of what we might generously call “embellishment." The gods and goddesses are, of course, characters themselves, integral to the story, with their own rivalries and histories coming into play. They toy with the lives of the hapless mortals (or is it that "Apollo bumped my elbow" was a good excuse for a misfired spear?), but even Zeus himself can't control Fate.
While I imagine this translation may offend some purists, it brings the story back to what it was originally - entertainment. I would recommend this version for anyone who has ever slogged through The Iliad thinking it wasn’t much fun. It is worth revisiting this dusty classic. Even after almost 3,000 years, it is still a good story.