The Iliad

Even though I was thoroughly familiar with the story, I had never before read the actual text of The Iliad (except, perhaps, in small selections within larger English textbooks). As part of my "30 books to read before I turn 30" initiative, I decided it was high time that I corrected this lapse. After all, I was a big fan of Greek mythology in general when I was younger, so I've read the Edith Hamilton descriptions of everything. Really, all I was doing was just familiarizing myself with some lovely poetic language, right?

Well, despite knowing every true plot point of the story, I found myself repeatedly surprised at elements of the actual text. Here are a few:

#1 The actual segment of the story. Some part of me knew that only a selection of the larger Trojan War story would be told, but I felt disoriented by being thrown in long past the events that sent the whole thing spiraling off. Then at the end, I felt so abandoned, knowing what was to come and yet unsatisfied in the closing. Did it make me feel better, as though these characters were eternally held from this utterly brutal finish, the walls of Troy still standing, the women still bewailing their fates before it came crashing down upon them?

#2 The violence. I was expecting the description of battle scenes and for some description of violence, but the sheer volume of description of killing and death was somewhat surprising to me. Friends can attest that I even incorporated "and darkness covered his eyes" a few times in conversation, poking a bit of fun, but then there were the graphic descriptions of spears through buttocks and chests, the heartbreaking comparisons to men falling like trees, the taunting of payback and grieving parents. The interaction served as a very strong reminder of the intimacy of war when modern day warfare tries to eliminate this. It might seem easier to bomb from a plane or fire a gun from a distance if one need not feel the blood gush over one's hands from the wound created by a spear or knife... but then, I have utterly no way of knowing and it seems the weight of lives way just as heavy one way or another.

#3 The gods are dicks. I could phrase this in a more polite way, but seriously, I can call a spade a spade. I know that, in my youth as I would read and re-read selections from Edith Hamilton's Mythology, I preferred the stories where the gods weren't just going off the rails because they could or overreacting (aka Zeus going "don't piss me off or I'll hurl you off Olympus and we'll talk again in a few hundred years when you've managed to crawl back up here with your shattered body."). I knew the gods were capricious and crazy, but the partiality and short attention spans and alliances based on personal vendettas... wow. Also, I was surprised at the number of times that the gods intervened in very direct ways... spiriting off beloved warriors right before an ax was to fall or materializing as trusted advisers to whisper ideas in a man's ear. It seems at odds with the image I have of the philosophical and logical Greeks that they'd have gods who based incredible decisions on whims. Or perhaps those were the gods they needed, to explain such urges that were not based in careful thought. I did, however, reminds me that I often had a hard time picking favorites amongst the gods, as it's not like there's one sane and well-meaning character in the bunch. Their very natures are weighted to the things they symbolize and the extremes do not make for well-rounded persons with whom one can identify.

I opted to listen to this as an audiobook, though I did re-read a few passages in my printed copy. Given the oral tradition, I felt The Iliad would be an easy text to listen to, able to hold my attention in a way that not all audiobooks can and I was quite right. It's a heart-wrenching story, worthy of having been passed down for so many years and one that translates surprisingly well in today's world. Even now, I feel there's a great deal to be learned from this ancient story of vengeance, war, and loss. I thought I might find more actions or impulses that seemed at odds with that which is valued in today's society, but I was somewhat unsettled by the fact that not much has changed. Perhaps the most prominent concept that isn't something we focus on much today is the idea of fate. Most of us can't quite reconcile the idea of making one's own way with free will and the knowledge that our deaths have been precisely foretold. To cheat fate and death was a negative things to the Greeks, whereas modern society rather applauds those who can avoid that which they would not choose for themselves. In our religious evolution, we've rejected the concept of multiple gods who play favorites and, instead, often base our wars (or at least fortify our claims as to being on the "right" side) on the concept that we've selected the one true god and everyone else is worshiping a lie. I wonder if it would be better for us if we hadn't abandoned the ability to think that there's just one force up there and obviously it's on our side. (I suppose I could add that as surprising thing #4 -- I did not expect The Iliad to make me deeply consider religious tradition and the shift to monotheism with its effect on war).

Even now, some time after finishing reading The Iliad, I will occasionally think back to the events and specific lines. It is not a tale that leaves your thoughts easily, nor do I much suspect it ever will. I also realize this isn't much of a review. Shouldn't I be at least mentioning brave Hector, musing on the limited but crucial roles of women, offering my opinion on whether Achilles and Patroclus were more than just friends, providing background on epic Greek poetry and who Homer might or might not have been? Perhaps, but I'm not going to. There are experts for that... I'm just pleased that this story is now something I've absorbed in to my consciousness, making me a little richer for the experience.

Random fact: my cat doesn't really like music. As in, she will generally leave the room if I have music playing at anything other than a barely-audible level. But the soothing voice of Alfred Molina reading The Iliad obviously passed some kind of feline test, as she was incredibly content to settle herself next to my iPhone as I let the Audible app play the audiobook while I knit. So, apparently Alfred Molina is a cat-whisperer or cats like ancient Greek epic poetry. (Or maybe she related to those mercurial gods.) Who knew?

1 comment:

G. Karl Kumfert said...

Regarding point #3: One of the questions all religions attempt to answer is, "why do bad things happen to good people?" Your answer, "the gods are dicks" certainly has its appeal.