Stephen Mitchell’s “The Iliad”

I like to listen to audiobooks when driving around.  News doesn’t interest me as much as in years past, and I can get what I want from websites.

I recently rented Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of The Iliad from my city’s library, thinking I would give the old tale another chance.  I had read bits and pieces of it in years past, but it had never seized my imagination.  But tastes change, and our perspectives change with our own life experiences, and it is good to give some things a second look.

This translation was different.  Maybe epic poems are better suited to being listened to, rather than read.  In their original incantation, the epics of antiquity were in fact sung to audiences; and perhaps this accounts for some of the repetitions and literary flaws of the finished product.

What struck me most about the book was how good it was.  This epic breathes fire, bronze, and rage.  This not one of those “classics” that we laud to the skies yet leave on the cold shelves.  This is not Milton’s Paradise Lost, nor Goethe’s Faust.  No.  This is the real thing.  The oldest literary creation in the Western tradition, and still arguably the best.

This is a violent, gory story.  I was surprised at just how graphic the descriptions were.  Bronze-tipped spears smash into skulls, spines, and stomachs; heads are crushed with rocks; organs and viscera spill out over the field of battle, all recorded in intimate detail.

The plot?  The Iliad is concerned with the wrath of Achilles and its consequences.  It is a human story of human passions.  Achilles is infuriated because he has been denied a female spoil of war, Briseis; he thinks he is not getting his due as the Argives’ main hero.  So he sulks about in his tent, and lets his countrymen die by the hundreds on the plains of Ilium.

He is not a likeable character.  We do not really identify with him.  He sends his friend Patroclus to his death, and whines about it later; and when he finally takes to the field, he is fired with vengeful rage that is expiated on Lycaon and finally Hector.  Even in his final victory over Hector, we feel little relief.  Part of the poem’s subtle beauty is to balance our sympathies so evenly among the two chief protagonists–Achilles and Hector–that we are able to see things from both of their perspectives simultaneously.  Although the poem was the product of a primitive age, it displays a depth of knowledge of human psychology and motivation that has been equaled by few other writers.

Some authorities say that the poem was the product of several bards which Greek manuscript collators  at some point stitched together into a completed narrative.  We are told that, in sixth-century Athens, a group of specialists collated and assembled the poems into a coherent whole.  To me this seems more difficult to believe than to see the poem as the work of one unified mind.  I have no doubt that there was a historical Homer; perhaps he had assistants to wrote down the vast quantity of verse he had memorized, and he then edited the final product.

Of course, it is not a perfect poem.  What work of art has achieved uncontested perfection?  There are some minor plot inconsistencies, tiresome speeches, and wearisome asides where the gods squabble with each other.

But these defects hardly matter.  We are swept up in the majesty and grandeur of the diction, the flow of the narrative, and the clashing battles that are so realistic that we actually feel we are part of the action.  Beaten bronzed shields, layered with ox-hide and horn, crash into each other; arrows fly here and there, and find their marks among the melee; and swords cleave through helmets.

The gods take one side or another, and at various points in the story, intervene in the fighting.  The poem is a product of a society still feeling its way cautiously towards the refinements of civilization.  It was a violent age, an age where every man had to be his own judge and jury, and where little counted beyond strength and cunning.

This is an incredible poem, an unforgettable listening experience.  Mitchell’s translation does what it sets out to do, which is to carry us along with contemporary English, and none of the “thee” and “thou” archaisms that we find so off-putting.  We remember the vivid metaphors and similes, which come through even in the fog of translation, and the hair-raising battle sequences both fascinate and repel.

All in all, this is a fine introduction to one of the most majestic and bloody monuments of world literature.  A basic understanding of this work is necessary for anyone who aspires to call himself a man of letters.  It is, with the Odyssey, so much a part of Greek history and culture as to be nearly the roots from which all else grew.

Read More:  Sallust:  The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha