Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Iliad

Title: Iliad
Poet: Homer
First Appearance: Classical Antiquity
I know. I know what you're thinking. Why the hell are you reviewing the Iliad, Ellen?  Isn't it pretty much cemented critically? Why don't you go review The Princess Diaries instead? I might get to The Princess Diaries soon, reader. As it is, I was writing a post listing my top ten influential, school-assigned reads, and it snowballed into an essay on Homer's foundational poem. 

I read the Iliad in the 7th grade, with my favorite teacher ever, Mrs. Cassidy.  This was the first book that I ever had a strong, intellectual connection with.  So much of this was due to Mrs. C's passion for the subject matter and for teaching. (She went on to found her own school!) 

However, I remember not enjoying every word of this text. In fact, the Iliad is the first book I where I struggled with keeping my attention on the page. There is quite a bit of REPETITION in this work, and CATALOGUES, and things called DIGRESSIONS. (Nestor, I'm looking in your direction.)  However, despite these attention-releasing details, I became intellectually obsessed with The Iliad.

The epic poem is divided into 24 books. It begins in the middle of the action, near the end of the decade-long war.  There is quite the ensemble cast, but the protagonist is — arguably! — the warrior Achilles, as the plot hinges on his action. Speaking of the plot, it's a complete soap opera.  It mostly features drama at the Greek camp, drama in the Trojan city, drama on the battlefield, and drama among the gods, who interfere with the mortals like they're playing a high-stakes game of Risk.

Interspersed with the drama, action, and tragedy is a swath of historical detail. Ancient customs are described freely and draw a picture of an other-worldly way of life. If you love history — and love being transported to another, older version of our Earth — this poem is an extraordinary resource.  It's been a long time since I read the Iliad, but I still recall how pretty much everything the Greeks did had a sense of ceremony  — sacrifice, storytelling, bathing, feasting, mourning, even arguing. Reading the Iliad makes an incredible period of human history come dazzlingly to life.

Also dazzling is the language.  Although I read the poem in translation — obviously — the ancient turns-of-phrase are intriguing in their difference from modern prose and affecting in their similarity to one's own emotional understanding. There are some gorgeous quotations that come out of the Iliad. And, even though the work is about a foolish, testosterone-driven war, the poem has something to say about everything — life, death, friendship, infatuation, marriage, parenting... 

Furthermore, unlike many ancient texts, the Iliad also contains quite a bit of dialogue, which provides modern readers with the kind of accessible characters that we're used to encountering.  It is possible for readers to get emotionally attached to the characters in the Iliad, because the language allows us to understand the characters as relatable individuals.  No other better example is that of Achilles and Hector.  The two men are mortal enemies, but you can't help but root for both of them.  Their final showdown is so full of tension, and so tragic. Note: For comparison, think of the Epic of Gilgamesh. What schoolchild ever cared about stupid Gilgamesh as a person and fretted over where he'd end up? 

Overall, the Iliad a viable option for those seeking to further their own literary education.  It is not an insurmountable read! However, I would highly recommend reading an annotated version, like this one, available online. It has the nifty feature of providing helpful illustrations and notes when you move your cursor on top of an underlined word or phrase.

I'm so fortunate that I had the opportunity to read the Iliad with an incredible teacher and discuss it with a class of peers.  If you're still in school, consider signing up for a class on Homer.  If you are in the continuing-education phase of your life, and haven't yet read the Iliad, don't shy away from the opportunity.  It's an amazing piece of literary history and a foundational work of Western civilization. 

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