Tag Archives: translation

The Iliad: Progress report 10

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.

The Iliad: Progress report 9

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 21 line 486 to Book 23 line 768

As I make my way through The Iliad, roughly 70 lines first thing each morning, I regularly encounter references to it in the rest of my day.

In my last progress report I quoted from Simone Weill’s 1939 essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. Serendipity struck a couple of days later when, visiting the Queensland Art Gallery to see the wonderful Chiharu Shiota exhibition, I spotted a screen print waiting to be hung in a coming exhibition:

To save you the trouble of opening the image separately, the spiralling text is a quote from that same essay:

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Force is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all, this is the Spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

The image is ‘Poem of Force’, one of a series of silkscreens in the Simone Weill Project by artists Janet Burchill and Janet McCamley. You can see a clean image of it here.

There has been some ludicrous comedy among the gods this month. Hera boxes Athena’s ears, and the latter runs to curl up weeping in the lap of Zeus. I tell you, after seeing the arbitrary, petty, infantile behaviour of the gods in this book, I’ve completely changed my attitude towards them.

But the main action has been the death of Hector, speared in the throat by Achilles. Hector dies a true hero’s death. He realises that his own heroics earlier have led to the deaths of many Trojans, and decides that the honourable thing to do is engage Achilles in personal combat, knowing the likely outcome. As Achilles approaches, Hector’s nerve fails and he runs, and the two run around the walls of Troy ‘endlessly as in a dream’. Then he stands to face Achilles once again. He offers a bargain: ‘If I kill you, I’ll ensure that your body is treated with full respect, and I ask you to do the same for me.’ Achilles, the embodiment of Simone Weill’s Force, refuses, and promises to leave Hector’s corpse to be eaten by dogs. At one stage he says, ‘I’d eat you raw.’ The gods step in for one last bit of disgusting cheatery, and Hector is slain.

Huge grief is unleashed among the Trojans. While I find it hard to read some of the Iliad‘s action scenes without a Marvel Universe version playing in my head, the scene where Andromache is interrupted at her embroidery and gives way to full-bodied lamentation completely transcends any such association. In particular, she wails for the fate of her son, who we met as a baby in Book 6:

The day that orphans a youngster cuts him off from friends. 
And he hangs his head low, humiliated in every way ... 
his cheeks stained with tears, and pressed by hunger 
the boy goes up to his father's old companions, 
tugging at one man's cloak, another's tunic, 
and some will pity him, true, 
and one will give him a little cup to drink,
enough to wet his lips, not quench his thirst.
But then some bully with both his parents living
beats him from the banquet, fists and abuses flying:
'You, get out – you've got no father feasting with us here!'
And the boy, sobbing, trails home to his widowed mother ...

Book 22 ends with her lament, and Book 23 turns to the grandiose ceremonies for Patroclus down by the Greek ships. It’s good to be reminded how deeply loved Patroclus was, and not just by Achilles, but the chariot race (mercifully conducted without godly interference) and then the bickering over prizes is a bit of an anticlimax. Where I left off this morning, two men were preparing to box, their eyes on a donkey-prize. It’s hard to credit that this book is the work of one writer.

Nir Batram’s At Night’s End

Nir Baram, At Night’s End (2018, English translation by Jessica Cohen, Text Publishing 2021)

I may have missed the point of this book.

It begins with an Israeli novelist waking up in a hotel room in Mexico after appearing as a guest at a writers’ festival. He is disorientated, and decides to stay on in order to track down a young woman whom he blearily remembers saying something to him about the death of his best friend. The friend isn’t dead, or is he?

The following chapters take place by turns in three different time periods: the late 1980s, when the novelist and his friend are in elementary school, creating an elaborate fantasy world and dealing with a trio of bullies; the mid 1990s, when they are in their final year of school; and the present time, in Mexico. There are frequent flashbacks and forward projections in each of the time periods, complicated further by dream sequences, drugged states and possible psychotic episodes. The friendship hits on some hard times. The friend (I think) becomes deeply depressed and after being suicidal for years finally kills himself. The narrator does meet up with the young woman, but as far as I could tell he just gets very drunk and/or stoned with her and another poet. I don’t know if the friend dies before or after their meeting.

Though I spent most of the book in a state of disorientation, the problem wasn’t at the sentence level. The prose, in Jessica Cohen’s translation, is clear and flows easily. It’s just that I never did really get what happened between the two friends, either in the late 1980s, the mid 1990s, or whenever the friend finally died.

The back cover blurb quotes a review by in Haaretz: ‘One of the most intriguing writers in Israeli literature today.’ Yossi Sucary, the quoted reviewer, is probably more dependable than I am. I brought it home from the Book(-swapping) Club. I can’t say it was one of my more successful borrowings.

The Iliad: Progress report 8

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 19 line 162 to Book 21 line 485

For eight months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad. I’m away from home at the end of July, and didn’t bring it with me, but there’s still quite a bit to report.

At the end of last month, Achilles was about to re-enter the battle. This month’s reading began with Hephaestus, god of fire, creating magnificent new armour for him, including a shield whose decorations include images of all aspects of life. Achilles dons the armour and, basically, starts killing people. Zeus lets all the gods of the leash – they’re now free to join i on whichever side they like, and they do. Fleeing Trojans fall into the river, and the river god enraged at being filled with corpses, rises up and attackes Achilles. But Hephaestus comes to his aid – so it starts to look like Australia in the current phase of climate change: raging floodwaters and relentless fire at war with each other.

There’s a lot more. My key take-away this month is a realisation that the word ‘hero’ has changed meaning quite a bit since Homer’s day. I doubt if anyone took Achilles to be a role model. First he takes offence and brings terrible destruction on his own people by sulking in his tent when they desperately need his help, behaviour that gets him called a beeyatch online (Sorry, I couldn’t find the place again to give you a link). Then, once he’s back in the battle he is absolutely, brutally ruthless. He not only sets out to slaughter everything in his path, including the river, but he makes callous, mean-spirited speeches to those he is abut to kill. A hero in the sense of role model or exemplar of moral virtue he is not. Achilles as a hero doesn’t inspire admiration so much as terror. ‘Thank the gods this is set in the ancient past,’ I imagine Homer’s first readers muttering, ‘because it would be a nightmare to have someone like that alive today.’

When I went looking or the beeyatch quote, i stumbled on this, from Simone Weill:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the lliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

(from ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, 1939)

Maybe that’s the point. Achilles isn’t so much a hero, as a person at the mercy his passions, transformed by them into something monstrously destructive.

Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees at the book group

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World (2015), English translation Jane Billinghurst (Black Inc 2016)

Before the meeting: This book received a lot of attention in the press when it was published, in a way that me feel I didn’t need to read it. We now all know that trees emit scents that affect the way other nearby trees react to, for example, insect attacks or fungal infections. We know that a complex network of underground funguses helps forest trees to grow and pass nutrients from one to the other. We know that trees that spring up close to the tree their seeds fell from continue to interact with the ‘parent’ tree. In general, we know that careful observation and experimentation is revealing that the received wisdom about trees, like the received wisdom about many other things, needs a major overhaul.

Peter Wohlleben has spent decades managing a forest in the Eifel, a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. He gives guided tours of the forest, is a committed conservationist and, as the book makes abundantly clear, loves trees with a passion. His passion is catching, and the scientific findings he describes are fascinating. He doesn’t intimidate his readers with scientific jargon or hector us with conservationist polemic. Instead, he is personal, lively, charming, and whimsical.

I found the book unsettling in two ways. First, the whimsy: there are mother trees and orphan trees; trees send and receive messages; trees are impatient or well-disciplined or altruistic. That makes for lively reading, and works well as metaphor. There’s no harm in saying, for example, that a tree tries to grow out of its neighbours’ shade because it wants more light. But surely that’s a figure of speech, it’s not that the tree wants something the way a human infant or even a puppy does. Peter Wohlleben does seem at times to be attributing actual thoughts, desires and emotions to the trees. He says occasionally that we can’t know what trees are feeling – but he comes close to implying that that’s just because we don’t have a common language. That is to say, maybe what I read as whimsy is actually a perfectly serious, I would say mystical, anthropomorphism. I react against that: surely we can respect trees, and forests, without attributing consciousness to them.

My second difficulty is the book’s exclusive attention to the northern hemisphere. As I read about beeches, oaks, birches and poplars, I yearned for information about angophoras, figs and eucalypts, about sclerophyll forests in general.

The Black Inc edition I borrowed from the library seems to be aware of my two misgivings. It signals that the book is relevant to Australian conditions by adding a foreword by Tim Flannery (though he doesn’t add any antipodean information), and that it’s based in solid science by including ‘Notes from a Forest Scientist’ by Dr Suzanne Simard, whose research provides the basis for much of the book.

I did enjoy the book. My discontents, far from leading me to toss it aside, prompted me to read more. I’ve recently read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, which covers some of the same territory. I expect to blog soon about naturalist John Blay’s Wild Nature, an account of his big walk through the forests of south-east Australia that immerses the reader in the experience of those forests, with excursions into the history of the battle to conserve them and occasionally into some of the science. And I’ve got Suzanne Simard’s seminal work, Finding the Mother Tree, on order from Gleebooks. (It arrived as I was about to hit ‘Publish’.)

After the meeting: A group member has Covid, and there’s currently a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in Australia, so we decided too revert to zoom. It was a small, short meeting.

I’d felt a bit strange about writing almost entirely about my discontents with the book before the meeting, but as it happened, that’s how the meeting went as well. About half the group hadn’t finished the book, in spite of it being quite short. The same two problems were prominent: the anthropomorphising got on people’s wicks (one person was delighted to learn that word – he knew what it meant as soon as he heard it); and the complete absence of Australian/sclerophyll/tropical forests was, at least to one person, very annoying. Other discontents were the lameness of the humour (humour which I hadn’t noticed), and the lack of structure – it just seemed to be one thing after another, with a lot of repetition among the things.

Yet there was something like consensus that the book’s content was interesting and important. A number of people mentioned other books: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) as a partial remedy for the absence of Australian content; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) as an example of even more exasperating anthropomorphism. Not everyone shared my love of The Overstory. There were some anecdotes about the death and regrowth of trees from our own experience, and one folktale.

Then we talked about Covid. Of the seven of us, four had had it at least once. The chap with the current positive result wasn’t there, so that makes five out of eight.

The Iliad: Progress report 7

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 17 line 50 to Book 19 line 161

For seven months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.

Reliably, I come across references to it during the rest of my days, the kind of passing remarks that would otherwise go unnoticed. This month, for instance, in Charmian Clift’s Mermaid Singing (blog post to come), Charmian and her husband George have just discovered the pleasures of seafood on the island of Kalymnos, especially palamethes, ‘a sort of mackerel plentiful off the Anatolian coast, sliced and grilled like steak and served hot with oil and lemon juice or cold with a
thick garlic sauce’. George says something ironic about British seafood, then:

Pass the palamethes, there’s a good girl, and I’ll write you an Iliad!

Last month’s reading ended with Hector killing Achilles’ comrade Patroclus. I was completely unprepared for what a big deal that is. First there’s the struggle over Patroclus’ body. For hundreds of lines the Trojans try to drag it from the field to strip it of the Achilles’ resplendent armour, and also to dishonour the corpse as a kind of trophy. The Greeks, led by Menelaus, fight them off, determined to protect the body of this much-loved comrade. It seems that everyone loved Patroclus. When word is finally sent to Achilles of his death, Achilles’ grief is epic, and he is joined, first by the women who have been given to the two of them as booty, and then by a stream of sea nymphs. We’re left in no doubt that this is no ordinary death.

Thetis, Achilles’ immortal mother, persuades him not to re-enter the battle immediately. She goes to the blacksmith god Hephaestus and asks him to make new armour for her son. Homer takes 150 lines to describe the impossibly complex imagery he embosses on the shield.

And now, in Book 19, Achilles has just addressed the Greeks. He and Agamemnon have come as close as they can to mutual apologies – which isn’t actually very close. Agamemnon in particular blames it all on the goddess Ruin who. after all, has deceived even Zeus. Meanwhile, the Trojans have rejected the wise advice of Polydamas to retreat to within the city walls, and been persuaded by Hector’s heroic posturing to stay near the Greek ships where – we know – they will be vulnerable when Achilles returns to the battle. The end is in sight.

This month’s reading has shown me what all the fuss is about. This piece of millennia-old writing still has tremendous emotional power. I could quote any number of passages, but here’s the moment when Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death (Book 18, lines 25–40):

A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen ...
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.
And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed,
out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles,
all of them beat their breasts with clenched fists,
sank to the ground, each woman's knees gave way.
Antilochus kneeling near, weeping uncontrollably,
clutched Achilles' hands as he wept his proud heart out –
for fear he would slash his throat with an iron blade.

And. really just to illustrate the virtues of the Fagles translation, here’s Alexander Pope’s version of those lines:

A sudden horror shot through all the chief,
And wrapp’d his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears;
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.
The virgin captives, with disorder’d charms,
(Won by his own, or by Patroclus’ arms)
Rush’d from their tents with cries; and gathering round,
Beat their white breasts, and fainted on the ground:
While Nestor’s son sustains a manlier part,
And mourns the warrior with a warrior’s heart;
Hangs on his arms, amidst his frantic woe,
And oft prevents the meditated blow.

You have to admire the way Pope fixes improprieties related to sex and gender: the captive women are virgins, and Antilochus, Nestor’s son, is far too manly to weep. I had a quick look at other translations. George Chapman (1616) has Antilochus weeping with the women. Richmond Lattimore (1946) has: ‘Antilochos mourned with him, letting the tears fall’. A S Kline (2009) has him ‘weeping and groaning’. For now at least, I’m content to wonder what Caroline Alexander, the Iliad’s first female translator, does with this moment – Amazon are advertising the hardcover for $150+ dollars.

Anyhow, onward …

The Iliad: Progress report 6

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 14 line 408 to Book 17 line 50

For six months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.

I’ve been noticing how often I’m reminded of it in the rest of the day. For example, there was this clue in the Guardian cryptic crossword on 24 May:

26 Across Parliament, one about to give a long account (5)

Less explicitly but more substantially, there was the 17 May episode of the ABC’s Conversations in which Richard Fidler chatted with Historian Gwynne Dyer, who says, among other things:

The view of the world as a permanent battlefield … was almost universal until just about a hundred years ago. Everybody would have agreed with that view that winners win, losers go to the wall and everybody has to be prepared to fight to defend their turf, war is natural, recurrent, you have to be good at it if you want to survive. Everybody shared that view. It was institutionalised in our societies. One of the principle responsibilities of the state was to be good at fighting wars and to be good at fighting wars was glorious.

You can hear the podcast at this link.

Dyer doesn’t actually mention The Iliad in the podcast, but I was gratified to see that the cover of his book, The Shortest History of War, features an image of the Trojan Horse.

Clearly, in recoiling from the violence in The Iliad I’m a product of my age: according to Dyer, the 75 years of my life have been the longest period in history in which there has been no war between great powers. (And with a lot of luck that happy circumstance may last for my whole life and beyond.)

This month’s reading began with sizzling sex between Zeus and Hera, and takes us through the bloodshed on the battlefield that resulted, both from Hera’s intervention and from Zeus’ response when he discovers her deception. Led by Hector, the Trojans reach the Greeks’ ships and set fire to one. But then the main narrative thread kicks in and, while Achilles is still sulking in his tent, he allows Patroclus to put on his armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle, like wasps whose nest has been disturbed one time too many by idle boys. (One of the first things I knew about Homer was that he used similes. Now I shake my head in awe of how brilliantly he used them!)

Then Patroclus is killed, stabbed in the back by Euphorbus then finished off – with a graphically described spear thrust – by Hector. Among so many violent deaths, the narrative pauses over this one for an exchange of oratory. Hector derides Patroclus as having foolishly done Achilles’ bidding, and then, unlike in any other Iliad death as far as I remember, Patroclus speaks to his killer:

Hector! Now is your time to glory to the skies …
now the victory is yours.
A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus – Apollo too –
they brought me down with all their deathless ease,
they are the ones who tore the armour off my back.
Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me –
they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear.
No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me.
From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third,
and all you could do was finish off my life …
One more thing – take it to heart, I urge you –
you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
Already I see them looming up beside you – death
and the strong force of fate, to bring you down
at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son …
___________________________________Achilles!

That’s a pretty strong dying speech: ‘It was the gods who killed me, not you. And if we have to acknowledge I was killed by a man, let’s acknowledge the not-so-glorious Euphorbus. You came third. And You’d better watch yourself, because my pal Achilles will do you.’

That’s pretty much the end of Book 16, but as befits a major turning point, the narrative doesn’t move on in a hurry. Now Menelaus, who hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory so far, steps up and protects Patroclus’ body from the Trojans who try to strip its armour (armour, remember that was borrowed from Achilles). In the Iliad every death matters, but this one has matters enormously. Basically it matters because it’s the thing that brings Achilles back into the battle to turn the tide, but Homer has made sure we’re emotionally affected: we’ve seen Patroclus as a mild-mannered host, a close and affectionate friend, a healer and a man who weeps at others’ suffering. Only in his final movement we see that he is also a heroic warrior. That is to say, he’s a much more rounded character than most or even all the others in the story. And now he’s dead.

I expect Euphorbus will be killed in my next day’s reading, and I wouldn’t want to be in Hector’s shoes when Achilles hears what happened.

As a card-carrying pacifist I deplore the whole thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

The Iliad: Progress report 4

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), beginning Book 10 to Book 12 line 42

As I continue my slow read of the Iliad, I keep being shocked by the intensely physical descriptions of the fighting. The warriors are surely meant to be admired, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading without revulsion the accounts of spears penetrating just above the nipple, heads and arms severed, the ground littered with corpses, clothing drenched in blood. There’s one gruesome moment when Odysseus and Diomedes extract information from a Trojan spy then kill him in cold blood, while Homer lets us know he was a bit of a wannabe anyhow. It could be straight out of The Sopranos.

I’m still surprised each time by the way an individual’s death on the battlefield is followed by elegiac lines about his peacetime life war and the people who will now be left grieving. I’m still taken aback each time the narrative slows down to dwell on the splendour of this hero’s armour, or the luxurious appointments of that one’s tent – Nestor, for example, has an ornate ceremonial mug that only a very strong man can lift unaided. The luxury feels a bit Trump-like to me, though I doubt that’s how it felt to the original audiences.

Mostly I’m in awe of the way, amid the back and forth of the war and the squabbling of the gods, the main characters are clearly drawn, and the narrative arc is clear. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle in a rage, leaving the Greeks (called the Achaeans in this translation) at a disadvantage while the great Trojan warrior Hector dominates the battlefield. Achilles refuses the increasingly desperate pleas of his countrymen. Now, at the end of Book 11, Nestor proposes to Achilles’ close companion Patroclus that he, Patroclus, re-enters the battle wearing Achilles’ armour. This would terrify the Trojans by giving he appearance that Achilles was back, and Patroclus himself would be able to do a lot of damage as he would be fresh to the battle. Patroclus hasn’t yet conveyed the proposal to Achilles and is busy tending a wounded man, but we now see that all those descriptions of armour weren’t just a bit of colour, but laid grounds for a major plot development.

Now, at the start of Book 12, there’s a passage foreshadowing the end of the war, when Hector will be killed, Troy stormed in the tenth year of the war and the Achaeans sail home triumphant. Then the gods Poseidon and Apollo will divert all the rivers of the region to wash over the great rampart that the Achaeans had built to defend their ships. And all traces of the city of Troy and the presence of its attackers will be wiped away:

So, in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.

This is surely a classic midpoint, an image of the end of the story coming immediately after the moment when the tide of the story, if not of the battle, turns.

The Iliad: Progress report 3

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Books 7 to 9

With some interruptions, I’ve kept up my daily reading of The Iliad over the past month.

Natalie Haynes’s 24-minute version of the epic (link here) summarises some Books with a single word: ‘Fighting.’ The fighting in those books has a hideous physicality, as we are told precisely which body parts are pierced or hacked off. This month’s reading has included a couple of such books. Perhaps because of the current news from Ukraine, I wasn’t enthralled by the violence or by the descriptions of beautiful armour and bickering gods that punctuated it. I began to wonder if the full text actually added much to the Classics Illustrated comic I read when I was 11 or 12.

Then along came Book Nine, and I’m enthralled. At the end of Book 8, the Greeks/Achaeans have suffered terribly at the hands of the Trojans, who are led by Hector and backed by the capricious Zeus, and are in danger of having their ships destroyed. Book 9 is the night that follows, and it boils down to a series of persuasive speeches. Agamemnon sends a delegation to plead with Achilles to return to the fight. The delegation is welcomed by Achilles as friends. They eat and drink before getting down to business (I don’t remember who is supposed to have the motto, ‘First we eat, then we do everything else’, but they may have stolen it from the ancient Greeks). Odysseus lays out his case; then Phoenix, who regards Achilles as the son he never had, makes his appeal. Achilles firmly, civilly, even affectionately, hold firm and sends them packing, and all the time Achilles’ friend Patroclus is a silent presence, behaving like a head servant who ensures that the guests are made welcome and oversees the preparation of bedding for Phoenix, who stays the night.

The speeches are long, and persuasive. It feels that Achilles must yield. Then he answers, revealing the imperviousness of his hatred for Agamemnon, the intensity of his wounded pride, and – this was the revelation to me – the depth of his love for Briseis, the enslaved woman who was taken from him. One way or another, women are definitely chattels in the Iliad, but individuals stand out: not just Helen and Andromache, but also the women taken as booty. When the delegation have left and Achilles and Patroclus go to bed for the night, Homer tells us the names of the woman that each of them sleeps with – in case you’re interested, they are Diomede daughter of Phobus, and Iphis from Scyrus respectively.

You know how I like to compare translations. I looked up Alexander Pope’s version of the sleeping arrangements and was interested to find that while Pope definitely suggests sexual activity, Fagles is careful to remove any such suggestion. Here’s Pope(I probably don’t need to say that here ‘Lesbian’ means ‘from Lesbos’):

But in his inner tent, an ampler space,
Achilles slept; and in his warm embrace
Fair Diomede of the Lesbian race.
Last, for Patroclus was the couch prepared,
Whose nightly joys the beauteous Iphis shared

Fagles, line 810–814, has this:

And deep in his well-built lodge Achilles slept
with the woman he brought from Lesbos, Phorbas' daughter,
Diomede in all her beauty sleeping by his side.
And over across from him Patroclus slept
with the sashed and lovely Iphis by his side

Naturally I looked further, and found Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation (link here):

But Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-builded hut, and by his side lay a woman that he had brought from Lesbos, even the daughter of Phorbas, fair-cheeked Diomede. And Patroclus laid him down on the opposite side, and by him in like manner lay fair-girdled Iphis

And lest this be seen as contemporary US and Victorian prudishness joining forces, I found a 2009 translation by Englishman A S Kline (here) that likewise refrained from mentioning Pope’s embraces or nightly joys. I don’t know what this means, unless that 18th century Englishmen saw sex everywhere while we moderns are much less obsessed with it. Hmm.