I was down in the lending library, walking the stacks and searching for a short story collection by Angela Carter when two gorgeous books caught my eye – The Iliad and The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, thick, luxurious tomes done in beiges and browns with an iridescent stripe of metallic blue across the lower half. I paused, checked, and took out the Iliad. Hefted it. Of late I’ve been browsing Myth Happens, a livejournal kept by Sonya Taaffe, a precocious and talented author who writes about the classics with a passion that has aroused my curiosity; made me aware how little I know of myth, of legend, of our Western heritage.
So. I took both Iliad and Odyssey and checked them out. And am now half way through the Iliad, having spent hours yesterday in a coffee shop turning the pages, and then all evening on the futon following the exploits of Telemonian Ajax, Diomedes, Hector and Aeneas. The Grecian Gods up on high, the crash and roar of battle, the high words of Nestor, the rage, the shaking, terrible rage of Achilles. It’s riveting. I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’m enjoying it, given how well known the plot is, and previous attempts to read other translations.
Which, in the end, is what I’m attributing my newfound appreciation to: Robert Fagles translates the Greek into muscular, energetic language, fast and dramatic, absorbing and arresting. My previous attempts had foundered on interminable and dull meetings between the Argive captains who seemed to do little more than debate and give long winded diatribes by the hulls of their beak-nosed ships on the shores of Troy. Somehow, Fagles manages to imbue even these conferences with vitality, and soon I was in the thick of battle, surging forth, right there with the bronze tipped spears that are thrown through the skies to splatter brains within the casques of the helms, watching arms being sheared from shoulder, the roars of victory and the futile pleadings for mercy. It’s incredible, it’s bloody, it’s furiously engaging. Heroes stride the battlefield, clashing and separating, calling forth for the aid of the gods who seek to influence the tide of battle as much as they can without rousing the ire of Zeus.
Here’s an example of how bloody and visual the battle scenes can be: Pandorus, a Trojan archer, has twice taken aim at Archean heroes and twice failed to score a mortal wound. Having roused the rage of the terrible Diomedes, he faces him in battle and throws the first spear:
But never shaken,
staunch Diomedes shot back, “No hit – you missed!
But the two of you will never quit this fight, I’d say,
till one of you drops and dies and gluts with blood
Ares who hacks at men behind his rawhide shield!”
With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes-
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin.
He pitched from his car, armor clanged against him,
a glimmering blaze of metal dazzling round his back-
the purebreds reared aside, hoofs pawing the air
and his life and power slipped away on the wind.
And so it goes – men, sons, twins, fathers, respected heroes and craven cowards, all collide, crying and eager for blood, stabbing and thrusting in the dust before the proud ramparts of Ilium, falling, bronze armor clanging against them, darkness swirling down to cover their eyes.
And Diomedes! I’d never even heard of this Archean hero, raised on the film versions and summaries as I have been until this point; he is a terror, the greatest fighter perhaps besides Telemoniun Ajax, lopping off the heads of countless heroes and soldiers, even managing to stab Aphrodite in the wrist when she sought to save Aeneas from his attack, and then pressing the distant Archer god himself, Apollo, attacking him savagely. At the last he charges the god of war, Ares, and wounds him terribly, thrusting his heavy spear into the god’s gut. Diomedes, sober and fell, bravest of the Argives while Achilles sulks by his black hulled ships. I can’t wait to see read his fate, to see whether he falls before Hector, or survives the war to return home.
And the poetry – Homer’s language, his metaphors, are powerful and vivid. The flux of battle, the sortie and retreat, the coming of a hero to a knot of fighting, the rages and passions, the movements of entire battalions, the weft and shape of the emotions that roil within the hearts of the soldiers – all of these are described with paradoxical metaphors of nature, of bucolic, pastoral examples. Battle is compared to farming, the the vagaries of natural phenomena, to the contests between the beasts in the wild and shepherds guarding their flocks. Men descend upon their enemies like furious water spouts, like clouds crackling with lightning, like mountain lions leaping down from ridges onto unguarded ewes.
Agamemnon, wounded in the gut, battles on, until:
But soon as the gash dried and firm clots formed,
sharp pain came bursting in on Atrides’ strength-
spear-sharp as the labor-pangs that pierce a woman,
agonies brought on by the harsh, birthing spirits,
Hera’s daughters who hold the stabbing power of birth-
so sharp the throes that burst on Atrides’ strength.
A description of the Archean soldiers following their captains to war:
Rank and file
steamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst,
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hordes swirling into the air, this way, that way…
And here they respond to a rousing speech:
So he commanded,
and the armies gave a deep resounding roar like waves
crashing against a cliff when the South Wind whips it,
bearing down, some craggy headland jutting out to sea-
the waves will never leave it in peace, thrashed by gales
that hit from every quarter, breakers left and right.
And poetry even in his simplest of descriptions, his clear language resounding with power and beauty:
And so their spirits soared
as they took positions down the passageways of battle
all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them.
Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering
round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory
when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm…
all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs
and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts
the boundless bright air and the stars shine clear
and the shepherd’s heart exults-so many fires burned
between the ships and the Xanthus’ whirling rapids
set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls.
A thousand fires were burning there on the plain
and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats
and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.
These are men about to go to war, sitting in the silence and majesty of the night, painfully aware that this may be the last time they see the stars and bluffs, the cliffs and ravines, the world about them. The world grows precious, illimitable, each man by his fire, alone with his mortality, as aware of the life burning within their chests as they have ever been, and having seen how casually and easily they may fall before the spears and arrows of the enemy this coming day; they exult in these few hours before dawn, terribly alive, if only for the moment.