Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 23 line 768 to Book 24 line 944 (the end)
It’s taken me nearly 10 months to read The Iliad, two pages most mornings, and it’s been a huge pleasure.
In the final pages, Hector’s body is reclaimed and given a proper funeral. The way it is reclaimed is incredibly moving. The Trojan king, Priam, goes into the Greek camp at night, alone except for one companion and the god Hermes to protect him. He pleads with Achilles to release his son’s body, begging him to think how his own father would feel in a similar situation. Achilles, the embodiment of unstoppable destructive force, begins to weep and soon the two of them are sobbing together, weeping for the parents who have lost sons including Achilles’ own father in the near future, and for the loss of beloved comrades. Then Achilles retells the story of Niobe weeping for her murdered children: in his version instead of turning immediately to stone and becoming a waterfall, she takes time off from weeping to eat a hearty meal, and that is what he and Priam now do. He tucks Priam in for the night, safe from being accidentally spotted by other Greeks.
That passage itself is enough to explain why the Iliad has such status. After all the violence of the previous thousands of lines, these two implacable enemies share a moment of common humanity. I could feel my mind – and heart – expanding as I read it.
Pretty soon after that, Hector’s funeral rites take place and the story is over. The story is over, but not the war. It’s very clear that in another day, the Greeks will resume hostilities. Troy will fall. The women will be captured. Babies will be thrown over the battlements. Achilles will be killed. It’s a standard thing that epic poems begin in medias res – in the middle of things. This one ends there too.
I’m having a breather before starting my next slow-read project. I’m thinking maybe Middlemarch.