The Iliad: Progress report 1

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, with notes and an introduction by Bernard Knox, ©1990, Penguin 1998), from beginning to Book 3 line 190

My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other. I didn’t have a coherent answer beyond, ‘Because it’s there.’

Anyhow, after one month I’m half way through Book 3, and only one person has been killed. Apart from four or five mornings’ worth of roll call of the Greek troops and then the Trojan defenders, I’m riveted. Achilles has had a big row with Agammemnon and withdrawn from combat. The gods keep intervening in fascinating ways, including making promises they have no intention to keep. Now, as the vast armies are lined up against each other, it looks as if the war is about to be called off and replaced with a two-man fight to the death between Paris, the strikingly handsome man who abducted Helen, and Menelaus the wronged husband. I’m on the edge of my seat: I know the plan isn’t going to work, but I can’t see how.

I’m not going to do this in every monthly progress report, but I want to compare some translations. Here’s the very first death in Robert Fagles’s translation:

The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops
while he still lived, but now for many years 
the arms of the black earth had held him fast
and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,
both cheeks torn in grief, their house half-built. 
Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him, 
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.
(Book 2, lines 796–802)

Compare Alexander Pope’s translation of the same passage, published in 1715. Pope sacrificed literal translation in order to render the poem into rhyming couplets – heroic couplets. He also renders the ancient practice of tearing one’s cheeks into the more familiar breast beating.

These own’d, as chief, Protesilas the brave,
Who now lay silent in the gloomy grave:
The first who boldly touch’d the Trojan shore,
And dyed a Phrygian lance with Grecian gore;
There lies, far distant from his native plain;
Unfinish’d his proud palaces remain,
And his sad consort beats her breast in vain.
(Book 2, Lines 853–859)

Alice Oswald’s version emphasises the pathos of the moment. It’s not a literal translation, though you could argue that it feels closer to Fagles than to Pope. As she says in her introduction to Memorial (faber & faber 2011), ‘Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.’ This passage includes material from earlier and later lines:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything 
Pyrasus   Iton    Pteleus   antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face 
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother 
Took over command but that was long ago
He's been in the black earth now for thousands of years

13 responses to “The Iliad: Progress report 1

  1. There’s something very contemporary about all this, though, Jonathan. Men and chest-beating (cheek scoring for women – in grief) but men having to be physically ugly to other men – that’s as old as this Iliad times manifold. Now Dutton is the chest-thumper in our Australian terms! I’ve just watched an interview of Oliver Stone two days ago – re his new documentary: “JFK – Revisited” – with Patrick Lawrence – and following up with another of Stone by Ainand Naidoo – in which there are references of US perfidy and invasions and false flag wars – and the Bay of Pigs (Dulles/The Pentagon, the CIA, the US Mafia – the Rockefellers) and save that JFK then brother Bobby and MLK et al might be seen as Protesilas – but when you come to “all those men killing each other” as EA says – (you are only at the opening so far) – soon the slaughter commences, I guess!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Jim, it’s alarmingly contemporary. Reading the roll call of the troops, though, the difference from today is what one notices: Homer tells us where people come from, who their leaders are, gives tiny details about the place and people, so we have a sense of the humanity that’s about to go into the destructive process of war


  2. homageisnotafrenchword

    “My partner, known on this blog as the Emerging Artist, asked why I was reading The Iliad, which is surely all about men killing each other.”

    Wouldn’t that, as a criterion for excluding reading material, rule out a lot of very good books about one of the key areas of human experience? And with respect to the EA, it’s not ALL ABOUT the killing, as you say you’re discovering. It may spring from the killing, but like all great books, it’s ALL ABOUT many things. BTW (ATSG), I read a rather good novel based on the Iliad recently – The War At Troy – by Lindsay Clarke. Available for loan @4 on very reasonable terms, like a coffee one fine day soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True – about excluding good books about a key area – but not everyone can read everything, and an abhorrence of violence isn’t a bad criterion to base choices on. I hasn’t stopped me, and come to think of it I do abhor violence IRL. Let’s do the coffee thing, but I should warn you that ifI borrow The war at Troy you might not get it back for a very long time!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. homageisnotafrenchword

    Also BTW was quite disappointed by Pat Barker’s novel, Silence of the Girls. As a feminist angle on the war at Troy I thought it fell pretty flat – rather a potboiler by her standard.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. homageisnotafrenchword

    I definitely offer long term book loans at very attractive rates of interest, amounting to something more like fascination. It’s quite possible I was jaded when I read The Silence of the Girls. I often am.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fagles for me, hands down.
    And while I’m no expert on Ancient Greek mourning rituals, I reckon raking the fingernails down one’s cheeks in abject grief is much more likely than breast-beating. That’s what blokes do when they’re limbering up for a fight…
    I think I’m very lucky that my university lecturer’s chose EV Rieu’s translation. If they’d chosen Pope’s I would never have completed reading it in the first place.


    • That’s interesting, Lisa: the difference between breast-beating and chest thumping: no wonder English is so hard to learn! I didn’t think to include the EV Rieu version of this passage. Here it is:
      ‘The men [… ] were led by the warlike Protesilaus while he lived. But by now the black earth had received him in her bosom. He had been the first of the Achaeans to leap ashore, but he fell then and there to a Dardanian foe, leaving his wife in Phylace with lacerated cheeks, and his house half-built.’
      I prefer the Fagles too, though I do like the Pope in small doses.


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