Tuesday, April 1, 2008


The Iliad
by Homer
Recommended Age: 12+

Dating from approximately 700 years before Christ, this ancient Greek epic poem was supposedly written by a blind musician. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that this work (along with Homer's Odyssey) survives intact, while all the other epics from this period are lost except for a few lists of titles, quotes in the works of later authors, and the odd shred of crumbling papyrus. In fact, The Iliad is considered the oldest extant piece of Western literature. How do you like that?

Well, lots of you probably don't like it, because you were forced to read it or even (gasp) translate it from the Greek as a school assignment. (Those of you who admit to the Greek bit are probably dating yourselves, alas.) All I can say is, get a grip. It's a great story, whether you read it in a prose translation (such as the W. H. D. Rouse one on my desk right now) or in any of the multitude of verse translations that preserve the poetic diction of the original (such as the one by Robert Fagles which begins: "Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed...").

That opening line may give you a good hint as to what this story is about. If not, see the recent blockbuster film Troy, particularly the role played by Brad Pitt. Achilles is the son of a goddess who fights with spectacular prowess and, after the death of his favorite cousin, demonic fury. His tale opens in the midst of the Trojan War, with the Greek siege of Troy already in full swing, and continues through a series of bloody battles and frustrating duels - frustrating because of the incessant interference of the gods, each of whom favors one of the combatants and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. There are eerie mists, supernatural forms of transportation, a deadly vendetta (which ends no sooner than the book itself), detailed lists of the fallen, and of course, at the center of it all, the combative charisma of the all-but-indestructible Achilles.

This book may surprise you. It reads quickly. It picks up later in the story than you might expect, and certainly ends before the fall of Troy or even the end of Achilles. This is perhaps because it wasn't the only epic that dealt with the story of Troy, but a popular misconception has led many of us to believe that The Iliad includes the whole drama from the elopement of Paris and Helen to the Trojan horse. (Actually, we learn more about that, in retrospect, from The Odyssey than The Iliad.)

This is an epic story, in the sense that involves a clash of nations, the intervention of gods, and 24 lengthy strophes that any self-respecting ancient Greek bard must be ready to sing, with harp accompaniment, on a moment's notice. It provides a wealth of knowledge about the manners and mores of Greek princes and those who served them. But it is also a story tightly focused on a blood feud between two men, Achilles and Hector. And in that sense it is the greatest and oldest pattern for the narrative art of telling a single, straightforward story and shaping it toward an inevitable climax. Because it does this, you can still enjoy it today - and I mean really enjoy it, not just endure it during 11th-grade study hall. Why don't you approach it again with that in mind? And if the version you last read still triggers nightmares about being unprepared for a final exam, choose a different version and try it from a new perspective. You might find the rage of Achilles remarkably "up to date."

The Odyssey
by Homer
Recommended Age: 12+

I have studied Greek, but somehow or other I never read this book in its original Greek. A variety of English version exist; one that I have enjoyed is the verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum, from which I drew the lyrics of an unfinished song cycle I composed in college. The original Odyssey, however, was written by a blind poet sometime around the 8th century B.C., making it one of the oldest surviving pieces of Western literature - only surpassed, perhaps, by Homer's other epic poem, The Iliad.

The Odyssey is (duh!) the story of Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses), an ancient ruler of the Greek island of Ithaca at the time of the Trojan War (which may have happened as long ago as the 12th century B.C., if ever). Troy has been sacked and burned, and the victorious Greeks are sailing home. This "man of many wiles" (so Mandelbaum; others style him the "man of many sorrows") - this inventor of the famous "Trojan horse" ruse (definitely a gift horse they should have looked in the mouth) - this paragon of the Greek virtue of cleverness who, for his sins, has made enemies of certain gods - tries to sail his ship and his crew back to Ithaca, but fails. Dogged by misfortune, faced by one monster or seductress or other distracting adventure after another, Odysseus loses all but his own life and ends up taking a REALLY scenic route home (e.g., by way of the Underworld).

Meanwhile, his heroic son Telemachus has another set of adventures while he searches for Dad, whose prolonged absence has emboldened the noblemen of Ithaca to court Odysseus's faithful wife Penelope. Odysseus's long-delayed return will be a day of accounting for the presumptuous suitors, who have imposed on Penelope's hospitality to the point of bankrupting her. Who knew that economic imperialism existed 3,000 years ago?

There are gods and goddesses, nymphs and monsters in this book. It has a man-eating cyclops, ship-devouring sea creatures, the irresistable song of the sirens, and a witch who turns men into pigs. It also has athletic tournaments, romantic encounters, military engagements, religious rituals, scrutiny of the manners of men and women, ghostly visitations, physical transformations, storms and shipwrecks, poets who strum harps and sing their verses (including one who brings Odysseus to tears), curses, disguises, insults, lies, reunions, parties, jealousy, and revenge, bloody revenge. And it is all told with a poetic elegance that may seem strange at the start of Book I, but will be as familiar as an old friend by the end of Book XXIV - filled with such well-known turns of phrase as "the wine-dark sea" and "winged words."

Several movies have been based on The Odyssey, from the 1954 classic Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas to the quirky 2000 Coen Bros. film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (where the Homeric tale is heavily disguised). This story is the oldest and purest example of the "quest myth" type of story that has influenced our culture's literature and theatre. It is an ancient treasure from which new things continue to be brought forth. Don't wait for a teacher to make you read this. See if the voice of Homer, singing his winged words over the strings of his harp, captivates you as it has done millions of others over the centuries.

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