The Iliad is an ancient epic poem whose events occur over the course of fifty days in the ninth year of a decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. It begins with Achilles, first among Greek fighters, offended by the decision of the Greek king Agamemnon to take Achilles’s war bounty, the concubine Briseis. Agamemnon is making up for the loss of his own bounty, Chryseis, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, in a deal he made in order to avoid incurring Apollo’s wrath. Publicly dishonored, Achilles withdraws from the Greek campaign to defeat the Trojans and return the beautiful Helen to her husband, Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. He goes to his ships, taking with him his beloved ward Patroclus and his band of fearsome fighters. From there, Achilles watches, indifferent despite repeated requests for help, as the Greeks battle the Trojans, helped and hindered by the interventions of rival gods watching from Mount Olympus. Finally Achilles accedes to Patroclus’s entreaties to be allowed to fight. Patroclus enters the fray in Achilles’s armor, only to be killed by Hector, the greatest warrior among the Trojans. Achilles learns from his goddess mother that if he stays to avenge Patroclus, this choice will lead to both his death and his glory, as opposed to a long life and little renown back home. Achilles stays and fights. He kills Hector and desecrates his body for many days before Hector’s grieving father, King Priam, makes a daring, secret request for the body. Achilles agrees, and Hector receives a proper funeral in the last of the poem’s twenty-four books.
Now that you’re reminded of the story, I offer a trigger warning: If you work in any kind of professional setting, and you are reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Iliad, you may struggle at the start of Book 22, when Priam beseeches Hector to return inside the city walls. Outside, fast approaching, seeking vengeance, is Achilles. We already know from the opening lines of Book 22 that “deadly fate bound Hector to remain . . . in front of Troy,” where he will fall to Achilles. This knowledge makes Priam’s effort to save his son even more affecting: It is a striking example of what Robin Lane Fox’s learned and heartfelt new book calls (following C. S. Lewis) Homer’s “ruthless poignancy.” But this ruthless poignancy—born of the interplay of powerfully determinative gods with the free efforts of well-born warriors—is disrupted in Wilson’s presentation of a desperate father trying to prevent the certain death of his child . . .