The Iliad and the Odyssey

The Iliad & The Odyssey - Homer, Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, Ernest Myers Together these two works attributed to Homer are considered among the oldest surviving works of Western literature, dating to probably the eighth century BCE, and are certainly among the most influential. I can't believe I once found Homer boring. In my defense, I was a callow teen, and having a book assigned in school often tends to perversely make you hate it. But then I had a "Keats conversion experience." Keats famously wrote a poem in tribute to a translation of Homer by Chapman who, Keats wrote, opened to him "realms of gold." My Chapman was Fitzgerald, although on a reread of The Odyssey I tried the Fagles translation and really enjoyed it. Obviously, the translation is key if you're not reading in the original Greek, and I recommend looking at several side by side to see which one best suits. A friend of mine who is a classicist says she prefers The Illiad--that she thinks it the more mature book. The Illiad deals with just a few weeks in the last year of the decade-long Trojan War. As the opening lines state, it deals with how the quarrel between the Greek's great hero Achilles and their leader Agamemnon "caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the undergloom." So, essentially, The Illiad is a war story. One close to three thousand years old with a mindset very alien to ours. One where unending glory was seen as a great good over personal survival or family. One where all felt that their ends were fated. And one with curiously human, or at least petty, gods. Some see the work as jingoistic, even pro-war, and I suppose it can be read that way, but what struck me was the compassion with which Homer wrote of both sides. We certainly care for the Trojan Hector as much as or more (in my case much more) than for the sulky and explosive Achilles. For the Trojan King Priam as much or more (in my case much more) than King Agamemnon. Homer certainly doesn't obscure the pity, the waste, and the grief war brings. And there are plenty of scenes in the work that I found unforgettable: The humorous scene where Aphrodite is wounded and driven from the field. The moving scene between Hector and his wife and child. The grief Helen feels in losing a friend. The confrontation between Priam and Achilles. I do love The Illiad, but I'd give The Odyssey a slight edge. Even just reading general Greek mythology, Odysseus was always a favorite, because unlike figures such as Achilles or Heracles he succeeded on his wits, not muscle. It's true, on this reread, especially in contrast to say The Illiad's Hector, I do see Odysseus' dark side. The man is a pirate and at times rash, hot-tempered, even vicious. But I do feel for his pining for home and The Odyssey is filled with such a wealth of incident--the Cyclops, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens--and especially Hades, the forerunner of Dante's Hell. And though my friend is right that the misogynist ancient Greek culture isn't where you go for strong heroines, I love Penelope; described as the "matchless queen of cunning," she's a worthy match for the crafty Odysseus. The series of recognition scenes on Ithaca are especially moving and memorable--I think my favorite and the most poignant being that of Odysseus' dog Argos. Epic poems about 2,700 years old, in the right translation both works can nevertheless speak to me more eloquently than many a contemporary novel.