Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Iliad

Year of publication: This translation by Samuel Butler first published 1898.
Found: In the sales bin at the uni co-op
Pages/Read time: 415, three weeks-ish


The Iliad – written by the almost mythic literary figure Homer somewhere between 1260 and 1180 BCE. It’s full of battles, blood, brotherhood and a lot of sacrifices to angsty gods.  Whatever you do, don’t be a noob like me and launch into your first Greek Classic without a bit of research. I spent a good 300 pages of reading waiting for the Trojan horse and the sacking of Troy before realising that this is mostly about Hercules being whiny, the gods being spoilt brats and everyone dying a lot before anyone has the bright idea of tricking the Trojans.*

In essence, The Iliad is a blow by blow account of the weeks leading up to the Trojan Horse Stunt without ever actually getting that far. The Greek demi-god Hercules is pissy because the leader of the attacking Greek forces has taken his favourite concubine away. Herc (who could have won the war single-highhandedly) is in fact so pissy that he refuses to help his fellow Greeks and instead sulks in a tent by the beach. Consequently, the Greeks get fairly whooped by the Trojans and their god-protected leader, Hector for quite a while. The gods get involved when Hecules’ mother Thetis convinces the supreme god Zeus (called Jove in this translation) to bring the Trojans to their knees. Which proves a bit difficult to achieve when Hercules continues to be a sook and various gods of war, love, messengers,  feasting, the ocean and earthquakes have their own agendas. I’m not being hard on Hercules – literally thousands of people die, a river chases down the Trojan army and the gods almost set the world on fire all because he won’t leave his tent.

The Iliad is hard work to begin with. I should have realised something was up when the first ten pages were a complete run down of every military leader, a description of their homeland and the exact numbers of men they’d brought with them.  Every character is introduced as ‘NAME the son of NAME, of the fair, green lands of PLACE where the SPECIFIC TYPE OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCE is DESCRIPTION OF SUPERIORITY’. Phrases such as ‘roasted marrow’, ‘darkness came before his eyes’, ‘pierced his armour to the left/right/just above/just below his right/left nipple’, are repeated ad nauseum (these things are probably more powerful writing devices in the original epic-poem-meant-for-reciting format). Every other metaphor for clouds, troop movements, rain, en masse sorrow is described thus:

As ravening wolves seize on kids or lambs, fastening in them when they are alone in the hillsides and have strayed from the main flock through the carelessness of the shepherd – and when the wolves see this they pounce upon them at once because they cannot defend themselves – even so did the Danaans [Greeks] now fell upon the Trojans…

And on that point, everyone, thing, place and god has about three alternative names.

The gods’ logic is infuriating.

Hercules, man, what are you doing?

But after a short while, the prose becomes very rhythmical and the action flies by with minimal need for goolging gods, demigods and place names.

I don’t know if reading Monkey Grip at the same time made this more or less epic than it was supposed to be. But if I have to read the phrase ‘and his armour fell rattling around him’ one more time, I may just launch my own armada against the translator (though, for a Victorian-era translation, Butler’s prose is surprisingly fluent to my twenty-first century sensibilities). Ultimate bragging points for this one but I am so looking forward to actually getting to the Trojan Horse bit after all this shield clashing, chariot racing and god-spatting.

Reading suggestion: Don’t be a noob. If you are reading this blog then you have the internet. Do some research before committing to Greek classics.

*The Trojan Horse saga is recounted in the Aeneid by Virgil. Yes I am a noob.

4 comments on “The Iliad

  1. Pingback: The Epic of Gilgamesh | Ellan Read

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  4. Pingback: Records of the Grand Historian: Part 1 | Ellan Read

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This entry was posted on February 15, 2017 by in Bit of Both, Classics, Poetry.

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