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Homer and His Iliad
by robin lane fox
basic books, 464 pages, $32.50

The Iliad
by homer, translated by emily wilson
w. w. norton, 848 pages, $39.95

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:

The old man groaned in grief and struck his head
Then raised both arms up high and wailed and shouted
and begged his dear son to come home again.
But [Hector] remained outside the city gates,
fixed in his firm intent to fight Achilles.
Priam reached out to him and spoke to him in anguish.

Wait, what? Reached out to him? Deep into a celebrated new translation of one of the foundational stories of Western culture, I come across a phrase I associate with bland and mindless writing? It breaks the Homeric spell and makes me want to put the book aside, pick up my phone, and delete emails.

To be clear, the phrase “reached out” has nothing to do with Priam’s knowing it’s just so busy a time for everyone right now with so much going on. Instead, using clear, accessible language, Wilson is describing Priam’s attempt—in word and gesture—to convince his son to return to him. But as is not the case with other prominent modern English translations of the poem, by Robert Fagles (1990) and Richmond Lattimore (1951), I find myself distracted, rather than challenged, by Wilson’s choices, here and at various other points. In Book 5, for instance, the war-mad Greek fighter Diomedes “kept his cool,” like a judicious bad boy in a teen drama; in Book 6, Helen therapeutically observes that Paris has “no capacity to change”; in Book 7, Agamemnon prevents his brother from fighting Hector with a “Stop! You are acting crazy, Menelaus!”; in Book 8, the goddess Hera, offended by Hector’s bold claims for victory in battle, turns to the god Poseidon and exclaims, sitcom-style, “This is incredible!”; in this same book, King Zeus darkly promises Queen Hera his divine support for the Trojan side as though he were a newsreader reporting the expected deaths of “yet more Greek warriors—mass casualties”; in Book 21, Hera encourages her child Hephaestus, the lame god of fire, to rescue Achilles from the raging river Scamander and its god, Xanthus: “Get up, my little twisty-foot, my son!”

Who calls the god of fire little twisty-foot?

Two people: his mom, and a twenty-first century translator keen on making Homer totally approachable for readers formed by, and happy with, a polemically informal, athleisurely non-hierarchical age. Wilson’s Iliad—which followed her widely noticed, similarly-minded 2017 translation of The Odyssey—was subject to a great deal of laudatory coverage in fall 2023, much of it focused on her confidently lean and demotic approach to translating an ancient epic poem about the outsized grandeurs and perpetual brutalities of manly noblemen at war. In her Translator’s Note, Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, makes clear her intentions in translating a poem she has read, taught, and written about for thirty-five years, a poem she celebrates as “the most gripping and heart-breaking work of literature I know.” She laments that Homer’s poem, so “grand, noble, and sublime,” has been for too long captive to (unnamed) English-language translations that “use contorted, unnatural language” in misguided attempts to convey that grandeur, nobility, and sublimity. She argues that such diction is contrary to Homer’s poem, which features “simple, direct syntax” consistent with its original, oral mode of delivery and reception. “In translation,” Wilson contends, “as in the original, Homer’s language should enable immediate comprehension and deep emotional engagement.”

Should it, really? Did it, really, millennia ago?

Leaving aside, for a moment, Wilson’s presumptions about Homer’s straightforwardly comprehending ancient audience, about which Robin Lane Fox has much to say that’s more textured and insightful, do we read classics—works of permanent relevance, in all times and places—in search of “immediate comprehension and deep emotional engagement”? I don’t think so. We read these books so as to be imaginatively estranged from our own times and places and mores by encountering a distant-feeling ethos and world of events. The war between the Greeks and the Trojans presents us with gods who can be propitiated by mortals but generally prefer to intrigue against each other and intervene capriciously in human affairs; with rationales for heroism that have more to do with personal pride and shame than with personal sacrifice for the greater good; and with unsettlingly beautiful-brutal analogies between the natural world and acts of human violence, both unfamiliar to us—as when the Greek archer Teucer shoots one of Hector’s brothers in the chest with an arrow. “Now Gorgythion / slumped his head sideways—like a garden poppy, / weighted with seed and springtime showers of rain— / so drooped his head, weighed down by his heavy helmet.” We are triply challenged: to make sense of the unfamiliar on its own terms; to find cause for convincing identification on our terms; and finally to consider where, and how, reading something remote into proximity can make possible the reconsideration of both then and here, the strange and the familiar.

Of course, in one sense a work like The Iliad is not really that remote or strange. In fact, it’s too familiar, a taken-for-granted book of always-already-assumed greatness. And in the moments when, without recourse to overtly contemporary English, Wilson frees The Iliad from its great book status—along the lines of what Maria Dahvana Headley accomplished with her exuberantly brash translation of Beowulf (2020), or Simon Armitage with his lyrical and brawny Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2009)—her Iliad is an arresting, demanding success. In fact, when Wilson doesn’t concede too much of the book’s power to the imputed need for ready accessibility, her translation resists “immediate comprehension” to wonderful effect. In Book 4, for instance, Odysseus, already renowned (before his later adventures) for his canniness and cunning, criticizes Agamemnon for claiming that some of the Greeks aren’t fighting as fully as they should. Wilson’s translation: “How can you say this, son of Atreus? / What words have slipped out past your fence of teeth?” Fagles chooses “clenched teeth,” while Lattimore opts for “fence of your teeth”; in the first major English-language translation of the poem, George Chapman’s 1611 Iliad, the equivalent is “thy set of teeth.” Fagles’s choice is too obvious; Lattimore’s, too precise; Chapman’s, too formal. Wilson’s is an unsettlingly direct and strange description of words imprudently released from someone’s mouth. In turn, I notice this moment in the poem—Agamemnon’s failure to rally others to his cause, precisely because of what he’s saying to rally them to his cause—in a new and fresh way.

Later, Wilson offers an invitingly plainspoken, rich, and melancholic description of the certain death that awaits Achilles’s Myrmidons in the fight against the Trojans, according to the prophecy of his mother, the sea goddess Thetis: “My mother told me something once. She said / the best of all the Myrmidons would leave the sunlight.” Here, the conversational familiarity of Wilson’s lead-in is balanced and in turn sublimated by the dense poetry of “would leave the sunlight.” Neither Fagles’s “leave the light of day” nor Lattimore’s “leave the light of the sun” has the same effect of making you stop and take notice and try to make sense of what’s happening before going on. Sometimes, when reading classics in translation, you don’t notice the translations at all because the effort seems so fully in service of conveying the original in a different language. This is very much the case with Fagles; at other times, as with Lattimore, you’re made to sense that you’re dealing with something both difficult and important, and you can either enjoy the gravitas or find it off-putting. Wilson’s translation draws attention to itself more than do these other major translations. It is confident, if sometimes too confident, in its contemporariness, which Wilson has put in service of our experiencing and admiring and finding relevant the literary achievement of “Whoever created The Iliad”—as she puts it, with a typical combination of mysterious wonder and dismissive aplomb.

Robin Lane Fox certainly knows who: a man called Homer. Lane Fox is equally confident, in Homer and His Iliad, that the poem is “its own best advertisement, but great questions remain, [such as] how, when and where it was composed and what accounts for its extraordinary power. This book gives answers to those questions. It is based on long familiarity and love.”

Lane Fox wants his readers to understand, appreciate, and join in his appreciation of how and why The Iliad “is beyond us, yet why it is still so profoundly moving.” Beyond us: not, as Wilson tends to suggest, anticipating or merely mirroring us. All this praise doesn’t mean that Lane Fox has written an insular, donnish love letter to his favorite poet. Instead, organizing his material in response to the poem’s four major areas of action—“the world of the gods and goddesses, the world of women and what, to us, is the natural world,” plus the primary setting that defines them all, the battlefield—Lane Fox marshals a remarkable array of evidence to argue for the concreteness of the poem and the poet.

The argument comprehends a chapter on Greek religion, in which Lane Fox notes that Homer’s original, religiously literate audiences would have found the poem’s fifteen major gods and related rites and rituals wholly legible; a chapter on Greek culture’s anthropomorphic projections onto the gods of family dynamics and particular capacities and tendencies; and one on the longstanding difficulty, among readers and scholars alike, of establishing the nature and status of human free will in the poem, given the decisive presence of divine omniscience, divine omnipotence, and divine interventions (including competing interventions) in the battles themselves. Lane Fox elsewhere devotes attention to the historical status of the poem’s setting: “Whether or not a Trojan war took place, Ilion-Troy was a real city” at least six centuries before Homer told its story. Relatedly, on the basis of centuries of Homer-inspired archaeological expeditions, he identifies correspondences between particular places or natural features mentioned in the poem, and their equivalents in and around the Dardanelles strait in modern-day Turkey.

Beyond providing a comprehensive contextualization for the poem’s premises and events, Lane Fox is intent on establishing who Homer was, how he composed—orally, Lane Fox proposes, citing oral composition traditions from different eras and from around the world—and where and when he began performing his poem. Lane Fox argues against those who would assign authorship to a time-spanning miscellany of unknown contributors anachronistically collected and contained in the name Homer, who together produced what was finally consolidated as the poem itself. Instead, he argues for an actual Homer who lived in the eighth century b.c. and was “most at home on or near the Aegean coast of . . . western Asia.” His evidence, internal to the poem (unlike disputable historical and archaeological findings), rests on the poem’s striking “unity of design” in ways both large and small. Lane Fox is convinced that only one remarkably artful person could create so many consistently arresting analogies between dissimilar things—such as the droopy head of a helmeted man dying from an arrow to the chest, and the droopy head of a poppy weighed down with seed and rainwater. Likewise when it comes to storytelling: Only one person could sustain so many highly controlled setups, which are in turn masterfully delayed before giving way to exposures of conflict and loss. For instance, Patroclus’s death is signaled in Book 8, alluded to in Book 11 and again in Book 16, at the end of which he dies, and learned of by Achilles in Book 18, setting up the poem’s denouement, with some three thousand verses about other matters appearing in between, including other combinations of setup, delay, and exposure.

Admittedly speculating, though with reference to his voluminous research, Lane Fox proposes that sometime around 750 b.c., “during or after a long raid or siege of a city in western Asia, Homer performed a first version of his great poem about heroes at war to fascinated listeners, all of them, therefore, men. Its fame then spread and earned it a free run at a religious festival.” The poem traveled from there, he thinks, gaining in popularity and standing among the ancient Greek people known as the Ionians, whose islands and cities ran along the western coast of latter-day Anatolia or Asia Minor in Turkey. Suggesting one reason for its early appeal, Lane Fox notes that the poem “does not honour one particular god, nor does it honour any city or presiding family.” He also notes that it describes social structures and practices that were at least two generations removed from the time of composition, and that the poem offers an incredibly detailed, obviously fictionalized account of a war that, had it actually taken place according to the relevant archaeological record, would have done so two hundred years into Troy’s existence and at least four hundred years before the poem’s composition. In other words, and contra Wilson, Homer’s original audiences would have been reckoning with a story whose elements were recognizable in some ways, yet also evoked ways of life and heroic events from either the recent or distant past. They would have lacked “immediate comprehension and deep emotional engagement”: We are like them, insofar as they would have been working to make sense of things in The Iliad, too.

Lane Fox devotes the latter part of his book to arguing why it is worth the effort, in all times and places. Provocatively, he does so in part by rejecting Simone Weil’s famous contention that “the true hero, the true subject matter, the centre of The Iliad is force,” and that “those who know enough to discern force, today as in the past, at the centre of all human history find in The Iliad the most beautiful, the most pure of mirrors.” Lane Fox finds Weil’s reading understandable in its totalizing claim for force, given that she was writing in France in 1940, but also too reductive: “It is not force which causes Hector to confront Achilles or Achilles to confront Hector,” he writes. “It is shame and honour on Hector’s side and on Achilles’s side anger and revenge. Throughout the poem’s fighting, victors and victims, so far from being [as Weil argues] objects [of force], wonder what to do and debate alternatives which are open to them.”

In other words, Lane Fox finds more evidence of subjectivity, agency, and humanness in the poem than Weil did, while at the same time pointing to the many occasions in the poem on which humans struggle and strive for advantage, for life itself, not knowing that the gods have already decided things for them. Such is Hector in his mortal fight with Achilles, or Priam in his going to ransom Hector’s body from Achilles. Aided in secret by the god Hermes, Priam crosses the battlefield and moves through the Greek camp to Achilles’s tent, where, in Wilson’s translation, the old grieving king “touched his knees and kissed his hands—the terrible / murderous hands which killed so many sons.” In turn, Priam addresses Achilles in open, total abjection, and he brings Achilles to tears by invoking Achilles’s own father waiting for his son to return—before angering Achilles by hoping that Achilles will someday return home to his father. The “ruthless poignancy” of this final sequence is due to our already knowing that Achilles will never return home; what is still more ruthless, more poignant, is our knowing that Achilles knows this himself. His releasing Hector’s body isn’t an act of rare and dramatic mercy born of extraordinary empathy or out of some warrior’s code of honor. Rather, it is done in obedience to a judgment from Zeus, of which Achilles learned before Priam’s arrival; and because he accepts that Hector’s receiving a funeral is part of a larger sequence of events that will eventually return him to the battlefield, where he will die.

Knowing all of this, we want Homer to signal, somehow, that Achilles was crying not just for his father or for Patroclus, but also for his mortal self. And yet he wasn’t. Out of what Lane Fox calls Homer’s “hard and ruthless depth,” Achilles has chosen glorious death over ordinary life. We want Achilles to be like us, but he’s not; we don’t want to be like him, and we aren’t. But whether we cite Aristotle or Thomas à Kempis, we are formed and called to learn and live through imitation. We want to close this distance between us and the hero of the poem. But it is one of many unclosable distances in The Iliad, mysteries of why people think, say, and act as they do. And so we never close the distance—the poem remains beyond us, as Lane Fox observes—but we keep trying. As mimetic beings drawn to stories as means of understanding our lives, we will always keep trying. What we discern with every effort, about a classic like The Iliad, is never a total meaning, but always a fuller, more refined measure of the work, which in turn invites yet another reading. I think this is why, by way most recently of Robin Lane Fox and Emily Wilson, we keep reaching for Homer’s poem. 

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Image by Sergey Sosnovskiy licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, extended (sides duplicated and reflected).

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