Review: The Iliad

This is a translation of The Iliad by Edward Earl of Darby in 1862, unsurprisingly free for the kindle, my current e-book reader of choice. I’d read parts of The Iliad in high school and had been meaning to get back to it.  Things come up, however, and twenty some-odd years later I finally got around to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the reading it, front to back.  I suspect that I would have enjoyed it less in high school, but now it was an endless parade of delights.

First of all, it’s a rip-roaring Hollywood blockbuster of a story.  It’s one bloody encounter after another, described vividly and in detail.  I tried to read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur a few years ago and found it deadly dull.  A big part of the reason for that was how sterile and ethereal all the interactions and altercations were.  Sure Arthur “slew on the left and slew on the right” but that leaves it all pretty vague what was going on.  With Homer You Are There: he describes the various movements of the heroes and how they face each other to the point of telling where the victorious spear enters the loser’s body and just how the body came apart.  While I do not feel any great need to know that Hector decapitated someone as opposed to disemboweling them, the overall tone is much more detailed and close to the action.  As a result the characters and situations are more lively.  Mallory seemed like literature to me in the worst pretentious way; Homer feels like a story that gets retold and amplified by people.

The translation is also a source of fun.  I can imagine a very direct translation that tries to get the meaning across as clearly as possible to modern readers so that they can easily follow events from a couple thousand years ago. That’s not what the Earl provides at all.  Apparently he’s trying to capture the flavor of the ancient Greek, and not knowing any Greek I can’t tell how he did.  What I can say is that his translation has a quirky rhythm and flow all its own.  For example, evidently negation was an intensifier in ancient Greek, because no divine intervention takes place without at least three offsetting negations: “you should not hesitate to avoid throwing your spear.”  It’s all comprehensible, but just alien enough to remind you that Homer’s world is a different place.  It’s also all pretty consistent, which gives the text the flavor of a stylist rather than a translator.

I also enjoy the little shout-outs and digressions throughout that remind the reader that this was a history of the war and the warriors and communities that contributed to it.  It is pretty common to introduce a character and describe his history and personality in the space between a spear being thrown at him and dashing out his brains.  Longer digressions describing the founding of cities or the lineage of the heroes also pop up.  While all this diverts from the main plot, I find it charming that some Greek soldier otherwise lost to the mists of time gets a brief moment of immortality here.

So, overall, The Iliad is a lot of fun to read, and it certainly helps your literacy in the classics.

Strongly Recommended.

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