Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Illiad

The Illiad
© 1960 Barbara Leonie Picard
208 pages
Illustrated by Joan Kiddell-Monroe

The Illiad is one of the oldest and most celebrated works of literature of western civilization: a classic among classics, no world literature class would be complete without it.  It is part of the western heritage; from it come phrases like "Trojan horse."  Yet, being a classic, it may intimidate some readers, especially given its form as epic poetry. Barbara Leonie Picard's interpretation of it into a prose should make this lovely piece of western history open to a wider audience, especially considering her introduction and epilogue, and the use of bronze and gold plate illustrations which hearken to ancient Greek pottery.

The story is set during the Trojan War, a decade-long conflict between the city-states of Greece and the state of Troy and its allies. The feud has its roots in mythology, with Paris -- a young prince of Troy --  judging a beauty contest of goddesses and being rewarded with the queen of Sparta, Helen, as his bride. Since Helen is already married to Menelaus, this causes something of a problem -- and the Greeks invade Troy, where they lay siege for ten years.  The Illiad is a story of men and pride, for the pride of two Greek warriors divides their army and weakens their cause.  It begins when King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek alliance, seizes a woman who Achilles -- the greatest Greek warrior --took as a war prize.  Achilles is outraged by Agamemnon's arrogance. He abandons the fight and prays to his mother -- the goddess Thetis -- to ask Zeus to turn the war against Agamemnon, and as the days progress many a Greek will die.

The official author of The Illiad  is a 'blind poet' named Homer. In truth, we do not know when the story arose and it is probably the work of multiple generations, the story expanding with every retelling -- for this is an ancient story, one originally passed on orally. "The use of gods as active characters in the story bears witness to its age:  Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and others are not mere background forces, but take an active but sometimes unseen role on the battlefield. They deflect spears and arrows, cast mists to  prevent foes from seeing one another, and directly assault the players. Although Zeus -- supporting the Trojans -- forbids his children from taking part, Athena never abandons her beloved Greeks, and Apollo does not forsake the Trojans. Sometimes the gods work against one another: when a river-god tries to drown Achilles for his arrogance, Hephaestus creates fires to keep the water away.

The Illiad captivated me: although I am familiar with the general story, I have never read it properly and so experienced the feud in full. The relationship between Achilles and the two princes of Troy especially interested me: Paris is a despicable character, and it amused me greatly to see Hector reliably addressing him as "Most wretched brother".  The story is far fairer to Hector than I anticipated: he is almost as noble here as when he was portrayed by Eric Bana in Troy, though his behavior at Patroclus' death made me think his corpse's being dragged around the city every day at dawn was something of a just dessert.  Perhaps the most striking element of the book is its emphasis on individual heroism: these men are not selfless soldiers of Greece; they fight for glory and reputation. At the same time, there is a bond between them -- and sometimes pride bowed before that camaraderie.

Rarely have I been more entertained by a classic: if you ever have an interest or a need to visit the Illiad, I would suggest looking for this translation. It is commendable.

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