Okay, everybody. I’m going to try to remain calm. I’ve only just spent the past two months tackling one of the most famous texts in the history of Western civilisation. Because I’m just cool like that.
Honestly, I’m still a little amazed that I’ve finished. When you’ve been reading a book for more than a month, you begin to shudder at the sight of its oh-so-familiar cover, taunting you with your laziness. It almost seems to take on a life of its own, glaring at you from across the room. My copy of the Iliad spent most of April giving me significant looks and asking, ‘are you really going to re-read your favourite Terry Pratchett novel for the upteenth time, instead of reading me?’*
I just want to stress, people, that I do not usually feel like my books are alive. Or that they speak to me. Apart from in the perfectly healthy way that their authors originally intended them to. But the Iliad came close to breaking me.
The Iliad begins with what might very well be the most epic hissy fit in all of history. Achilles, enraged that Agamemnon has been playing with his spoils of war, decides that he’s not going to play with his Greek cousins any more, so there. Instead, he’s going to sit in his tent and sulk. But in a very manly way, of course. The story unfolds from there. Battles are fought, gods are enraged, and lots of people die.
Now that I’m on the other side of the book, I’m glad I took my reading slowly. I read about a book a day, sometimes skipping a day (or sometimes a week). It gave me time to really think about what I’d read before I returned to the poem. But the Iliad is still a tricky text. For me, this was primarily because it suffered from the same flaw that Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur did. After you’ve described one or two battles, your readers begin to feel like they’ve read them all. And good old Homer – he loved his battle scenes.
Of course, this is understandable in an epic poem about an epic war. But the long descriptions of battles and skirmishes make you all the more grateful when something of a little more substance happens (although some might argue that you can’t get much more substance than fifteen descriptions of guts spilling across the battlefield). How about the scene where Aphrodite whisks Paris off the battlefield and into Helen’s bed? I’m not sure whether Paris’ macho friends would slap him on the back for getting some even in the midst of battle, or stab him in the back for running away from a fight. Based on his characterisation, it doesn’t matter all that much, because it appears Paris didn’t have any macho friends (or any other kind of friends, really, considering it was at least partly his fault that the Trojan War even started; that sort of thing doesn’t usually make you popular, even if you are a prince).
The one fight scene I did care about (after the first few) was the one between Hector and Achilles. You do begin to feel quite sorry for Hector; despite his sympathetic portrayal in the poem the reader knows the fate that awaits him. So it’s hard to read the final battle scene with this knowledge hanging over your head. Hector seems like the only figure keeping the Trojan side together, so it’s little wonder this battle is so important. Homer constructs Hector as a fierce warrior, a worthy opponent to the petulant Achilles. (Incidentally, my preference for Hector and the Trojans is in no way related to my predilection for Eric Bana or my tendency to side with the underdog. Nosir.)
What follows is even more interesting; Priam goes into the Greek camp to demand the body of his son for burial. It’s actually rather moving, as Priam and Achilles make nice (but not nice enough to actually end the war). This finale left me with a much more sympathetic view of the entire text. I’m glad I’ve finally braved the Iliad. There were parts I enjoyed more than others (any scene with the gods in it comes to mind), and I can appreciate why it has remained so influential and so widely read. War, sex, and betrayal; the Iliad has it all.
Rating: 4 Stars
*I’d just like to stress that there is nothing more enjoyable than reading a Terry Pratchett novel. But the Iliad is the great-granddaddy of pretty much every book in the universe, and it often feels that younger books should treat it with the proper amount of respect.