Dating from approximately 700 years before Christ, this ancient Greek epic poem was supposedly written by a blind musician. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that this work (along with Homer's Odyssey
) survives intact, while all the other epics from this period are lost except for a few lists of titles, quotes in the works of later authors, and the odd shred of crumbling papyrus. In fact, The Iliad
is considered the oldest extant piece of Western literature. How do you like that?
Well, lots of you probably don't like it, because you were forced to read it or even (gasp) translate it from the Greek as a school assignment. (Those of you who admit to the Greek bit are probably dating yourselves, alas.) All I can say is, get a grip. It's a great story, whether you read it in a prose translation (such as the W. H. D. Rouse one on my desk right now) or in any of the multitude of verse translations that preserve the poetic diction of the original (such as the one by Robert Fagles which begins: "RageGoddess, sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles, murderous, doomed...").
That opening line may give you a good hint as to what this story is about. If not, see the recent blockbuster film "Troy," particularly the role played by Brad Pitt. Achilles is the son of a goddess who fights with spectacular prowess and, after the death of his favorite cousin, demonic fury. His tale opens in the midst of the Trojan War, with the Greek siege of Troy already in full swing, and continues through a series of bloody battles and frustrating duels - frustrating because of the incessant interference of the gods, each of whom favors one of the combatants and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. There are eerie mists, supernatural forms of transportation, a deadly vendetta (which ends no sooner than the book itself), detailed lists of the fallen, and of course, at the center of it all, the combative charisma of the all-but-indestructible Achilles.
This book may surprise you. It reads quickly. It picks up later in the story than you might expect, and certainly ends before the fall of Troy or even the end of Achilles. This is perhaps because it wasn't the only epic that dealt with the story of Troy, but a popular misconception has led many of us to believe that The Iliad includes the whole drama from the elopement of Paris and Helen to the Trojan horse. (Actually, we learn more about that, in retrospect, from The Odyssey than The Iliad.)
This is an epic story, in the sense that involves a clash of nations, the intervention of gods, and 24 lengthy strophes that any self-respecting ancient Greek bard must be ready to sing, with harp accompaniment, on a moment's notice. It provides a wealth of knowledge about the manners and mores of Greek princes and those who served them. But it is also a story tightly focused on a blood feud between two men, Achilles and Hector. And in that sense it is the greatest and oldest pattern for the narrative art of telling a single, straightforward story and shaping it toward an inevitable climax. Because it does this, you can still enjoy it today - and I mean really enjoy it, not just endure it during 11th-grade study hall. Why don't you approach it again with that in mind? And if the version you last read still triggers nightmares about being unprepared for a final exam, choose a different version and try it from a new perspective. You might find the rage of Achilles remarkably "up to date."
Recommended Age: Age: 12+
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