On death, control and reading the Iliad by Homer

This might turn into a series. I could have Iliad-withdrawal. I have so much to say about the epic that my mind seems to come up with fuzzy nothings about all other books lately. Maybe I should give up trying to write anything other than the delighted swooning ramblings brought on by my successful (yes, it still surprises me) reading of The Iliad. 
Disclaimer: In all honesty, I haven’t even glanced at the thousands of literary analyses out there that would surely help me understand the poem better. I should perhaps do that, but I only want other opinions once I’m done processing mine – and God knows when that will be. For the first time in a long time, I find myself blogging for me, and not for the reader. I’m writing to feed the pressing need to express. So, of course, I will end up saying things that are in-your-face obvious and I hope this little disclaimer of mine will keep you from rolling your eyes and going, “geez, everyone knows that.” 
For me, one of the biggest curiosities of The Iliad is the deaths. There are hundreds, but they all go about in this pattern. The character who is about to be killed advances towards the killer, the poet tells us all about his life – where he is from, how he was raised, how he ended up fighting for the Dardans (Trojans) or the Danaans (Greeks). And then, all of a sudden, he is hit, by a spear through his neck or an arrow through his chest, gut-dropping and blood-spillage follows and we are told simply that “darkness clouded his eyes.” It’s interesting how many stories we get to know as they come to an end. It’s also mad, devilish to introduce lives just on the brink of the end. Has to mean something.
An English professor I became acquainted with this summer showed obvious indifference when I, with characteristic ineptitude, bragged to him about reading The Iliad. He compared it with the Mahabharata and provided insight into the latter which he considered more profound. I haven’t read the Mahabharata, but in all fairness, it’s about ten times the size of The Iliad; it has much more room to be more. He commented that The Iliad was little more than a gory massacre. Too sensationalized, he called it, and wrinkled his nose.  
I couldn’t disagree more, but I get where he’s coming from. If there’s one thing The Iliad lets us know, it’s that the gods have all the power. Destiny is already fixed. Hector must die, Troy will fall, but so will Achilles, who will be immortalized for his lion-hearted bravery. But this does not stop the Trojans from hitting back, the Achaeans from worrying and Achilles from simply refusing to fight. The gods don’t just have favourites, they meddle. Athena in disguise tricks Hector, Aphrodite whisks away her son from the battleground and Hera with her ivory arms fights with Zeus about being partial. The gods have their whims and the war rages on. It’s mindless. Men are puppets who pray, sacrifice and kill to please. There’s no thought in it, really, no genius, no Krishna with his war strategies. The Iliad is essentially about a man and his big hurt ego, Achilles and his stubborn thoughtless rage and how it changed the lives of nations. But is it any less meaningful? 
I think The Iliad drives home the message that control is a myth, so you might as well believe in whatever you believe in, because all you can ever be sure of is faith. I know that seems like a given, but who did tell you that the truth had to be more than simple? What sounds like a fluttering resignation can be a gracious acceptance. The Achaeans attack and the Trojans fight back, their fates sealed, because the ending is inevitable and all there’s left is shaping the middle – that is life. The deaths in The Iliad aren’t meaningless precisely because the poet makes it a point to tell us, even if a little, about every life he takes away. The war-deaths in The Iliad are only as meaningless as all death. It’s pointless, the poem has made me realize, to try and find that meaning in an ending which can be found in a life.
(Alice Oswald is the writer of a book called Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad about the minor-deaths which lead up to Hector’s death. I haven’t read the book. But I have seen this clip of her reading from it. The Amazon blurb says it is about the dead “each of whom lives and dies unforgettably – and unforgotten – in the copiousness of Homer’s glance.” Wow. Also, there’s a nice Deaths of the Iliad tumblr for you trivia nerds.)
Spoilers (Edit: I earned much amusement for putting a spoiler alert for the Iliad; still, read at your own risk:) I have stuck to the professor-prompted musings on individual deaths here. In a larger sense, death is the main theme of the Iliad. For Achilles, as for Hector, death is inevitable. For Achilles, the very purpose of whose life is ensuring immortal recognition, death is glory. For Hector, death is significant because the time leading up to his provides a fighting chance for Troy. It is death that brings Achilles out of his silence. The death of Patroclus, his friend, unleashes the monster that we’ve only heard of since the beginning of the epic poem when Achilles leaves the fight. It is also death, Hector’s, that eventually shows a glimmer of humanity in the cruellest of men. 
The Iliad ends on a sad, albeit almost hopeful note, chronicling the momentary, eleven-day, truce that Achilles agrees to upon seeing a broken King Priam beg for his son’s corpse. A long chapter about the games after the long-awaited burial of Patroclus is followed by the most beautiful ending ever, the best part of the epic, for me. Achilles was meant to kill Hector, though he couldn’t have known how or why. I think a part of him, the part that knows love and buries Patroclus in elaborate festivities, agrees that for all the passion and rigours of war, the dead and their survivors deserve respect. For trying. 

On Translation and reading The Iliad by Homer

I spent this entire morning snuggled up in bed reading the final fifty pages of The Iliad, aloud, to myself, because out loud is the only way the book should be read, trust me on this. The blog has been in a slump through December and I can’t think of a better way to revive it than by sharing impromptu musings on my new-found respect for translators and a glimpse at the best reading experience of my life – yes, that’s what it’s been. It’s The. Effing. Iliad.

In all honesty, a part of me wanted to read The Iliad for the same reason you’d want to read Proust – so I could say I’ve read it. I was looking at attending university, studying literature and hardly well versed as I am in classics, I thought being legitimately able to insert “When I read the Iliad…” into conversation would tip the scales in my favour. Of course, that was only one reason. Another was just trying my hand at reading an epic. I chose The Iliad because it was a History Channel film on Helen of Troy I’d seen as a kid that had first sparked my interest, if a dull spark back then, in mythology.

Choosing the translation was a difficult business. This was back in July; I spent days perusing Wikipedia’s English Translations of Homer page. I did not want to pick something too heavy or clunky to get through and end up abandoning it. Finally, I narrowed my choices down to the post-1950s translations by Richmond Lattimore (most recommended,) Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald. Sampling their translations on Amazon, I found Fitzgerald the easiest to follow and the most poetic. Interestingly, my copy arrived with a blurb on the back cover by Atlantic Monthly that says,

“Fitzgerald has solved virtually every problem that has plagued translators of Homer. The narrative runs, the dialogue speaks, the military action is clear, and the repetitive epithets become useful texts rather than exotic relics.”

I won’t get into what I thought of the epic. It is still far too fresh in my mind for that. But reading this book has completely made me question an initial unthinking stance on translators and here’s why. Homer is not easy and Fitzgerald just plays with words. The writing is beautiful and I cannot stress enough how smoothly the writing flows, how rhythmic it is; how deceptively with-ease he makes rhymes. It retains the conversational-recital tone of the epic, and it can be experienced, as is appropriate, without academic help.

Reading The Iliad made me realize and accept the very critical and influential role of a translator in literature. Not as the commonly described “bridge between reader and writer,” which attempts to sound all profound but is basically a definition of the job. A translator is an interpreter and giver of new / deeper meaning. A good translator should peel back the layers of a narrative, maintaining or adding aesthetic quality, sure, but mostly – making a text more accessible to his intended audience. And that is something that I never thought about before, the simple idea that a translator may have his own intended reader that might not be the same as the writer’s. Translation is maybe not a strict replacing meaning-for-meaning work that has everything to do with language. Taking focused liberties with a piece could make a great translator out of a good one. 
I’ve come to realize recently that I think as I write which makes me often end up in winding lanes of thought and incomplete corners. But that’s how I am. So, I’ll leave this characteristic half-formed idea with a far more coherent comment (which I hope it’s okay to repost) by a fellow blogger, Viktoria, on my review of Translator Translated by Anita Desai
I have noticed when it comes to poetry that they like to use the word interpretation instead of translation. Which makes sense. I really think of all translation as interpretation, and come to think of it, I think the act of reading, whether across language borders or not, is interpretation. I have been in enough book discussion groups to know that my reading can differ a whole lot from my neighbours reading. Actually, I think what makes literature great is its capacity to contain and express my own experiences. It´s like writing is the art of embracing and affirming every potential reader. So, I would argue, there is an art to reading that is kin to the art of translating. Its mother, perhaps.

Something to chew on. I’ll post more on reading The Iliad later. It’s good to be back. 

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I’d highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn’t you like to know where all those words came from?
I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.
The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It’s a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 
Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I’m no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word ‘east.’ The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both ‘fauna’ and ‘faun.’ Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!
In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was “Achilles heel.” But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you’ve seen any of these used, “the apple of discord,” “to sulk like Achilles in his tent,” “I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts.” Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included “to cut the Gordian knot” from a story of Alexander the Great, “to throw a sop to Cerberus” inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.
Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can’t wait to get my hands on that! 

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.

But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.