Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What’s Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba?

The Iliad, by Homer, Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, LLC, 1994

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That old wheeze your grandmother always told you feels truer than ever when you read Homer’s The Iliad. Greed, envy, lust, anger, pretty much the whole gamut of the seven deadly sins are on display, not to mention stupidity, hubris, and waste waste waste.

For that is what war is stripped of all the pageantry and symbolism, stripped of motivations on either side — war is a gigantic, horrendous, terrible waste. Wasted lives, wasted treasure, wasted opportunities.

Never be it said, though, that the human beast is incapable of mining the gold of art from the most abject human suffering, whether in ancient times or today. Thus, we have still handed down to us through the ages Homer’s two poems, both centered on the Trojan War. The older, more martial of the two, The Iliad is remarkable, greater than many a book of war and peace for several reasons, the most interesting being that it is perhaps the very first time a national literature has so humanized the enemy in battle.

It is a scene we will see picked up by many later war books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, where the enemy meet face to face and realize that they are no different. Homer not only makes the Trojans valorous in battle, he makes them sympathetic in defeat, and normal and touching in their personal lives. Thus we see Hector with his wife and son as his wife tries to convince him to flee the battle and he gives a speech about honor and courage. When his young son is frightened of the aspect of his armor, Hector removes some of it, shows it to his son, is tender with the boy.

This scene has its match in another moment of tenderness, this more melancholy and doleful, when King Priam in disguise slips out of Troy at night and makes his way into the Greek camp. He enters the tent of Achilles, who has just lately killed the prince Hector and with his chariot dragged his body up and down the beach, doing great dishonor to his corpse. The King has come to beg for his son’s body so that he may perform the appropriate funeral rites—and he kisses Achille’s very hands, wetting them with tears, the hands which only hours before had slain his son and the hopes of Troy.

It is, in fact, The Iliad’s climactic scene. Having only previously read portions in Latin class in college, I was surprised that the poem ended where it did. Touched by Priam’s moving tribute, the next day Achilles holds funerary games for the slain Hector and the poem ends amidst feats of strength and agility, the city of Troy still unsacked, no giant horse, no slaughter of all the inhabitants. Instead, the book’s closing passages are a kind of hymn to one of the Greek’s strongest foes.

Because even if the title suggests that the story is about the fall of Ilium (Troy’s Latin name), what it really focuses on are the two great warriors Achilles and Hector. We meet each of these noble men, we follow them through the course of the tenth and final year of the siege of the city of Troy. Achilles has withdrawn from battle, his pride stung that King Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, has appropriated Briseis, a slave woman Achilles won in combat. For a great part of the poem, Achilles refuses to fight, wrestling with his conscience about his decision. He came to Troy for the honor of battle, but by refusing to fight, he sacrifices his chance at that honor to his pride. It comes down in his mind to which type of pride is strongest.

On the other side we have Hector, who never wanted this war in the first place (not that many Trojans did). His brother Paris has committed the outrage of absconding from the palace of Menelaus with the king’s wife, Helen, offending both marital bonds as well as the rights of his host to trust his guests. Moved to attempt reconciliation despite knowing it is Troy’s fate to fall, Hector is actually a far more noble, just, and honorable character than the Greek hero Achilles, one of the more fascinating aspects of this Greek national epic.

Throughout, Homer keeps things lively by showing infighting among the gods and goddesses who watch over the two sides, each picking and assisting their favorites. He also peers deep into the camp to show us the debate among the Greeks between those who are exhausted and just wish the fighting to be over and greedy Agamemnon who is only interested in plundering the city. Here Homer provides us with one of the most basic truths of war — greed is often the primary motivation.

Never mind all that malarkey about “the face that launched a thousand ships.” That’s strictly for the suckers, a pseudo-ennobling exercise in misdirection like “spreading democracy.” Were you to look at a map of Troy’s location, you’d see how this city, famed for its wealth and power, sat at the thin juncture between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, giving it unparalleled control over shipping traffic in the heart of the ancient world. Whoever controlled that port could levy whatever tax they would, and to take the town would leave open to plunder all the wealth Troy had accumulated collecting just those taxes.

Of course, Helen’s face isn’t the only excuse made for the greed of the Greeks. It is axiomatic in ancient literature that no one is essentially responsible for their own behavior (though one wonders why they then had punishments for this behavior). Should you succeed in an endeavor, the gods assisted you. Were you to run mad with love, the gods were involved. All throughout the course of the battle, the gods are deflecting arrows and spears, causing mischance and good luck in equal measures. Paris, for example, only survives his one-on-one battle with Menelaus because Aphrodite interferes.

Which is not to say that there isn’t bloodshed, because Homer provides plenty of that. The scenes of pitched battle are gruesome and graphic, spears thrusting into organs and through jaws, swords cleaving skulls and lopping limbs. This ugliness is in keeping both with the times, a rip-roaring thriller to keep you awake as the reciter of the poem chanted the dactylic hexameter, and with what I suspect is in part Homer’s intentions, cataloging the very real consequences of going off to war. In many of these battle scenes (and preceding them too), Homer goes to great pains to list the warriors, their hometowns, and the ships which brought them. This too serves the dual purpose of giving a shout-out to various cities whose inhabitants might be listening from night to night as well as letting each town know that they haven’t escaped war’s claws untouched.

I’m torn between Robert Fitzgerald’s translations and Robert Fagles. Both men are superb at rendering the epics of ancient Greece into fluid and masterfully poetic English though there are subtle differences I can’t quite put my finger on here. Fitzgerald, as the older of the two, is more inclined to archaicism or somewhat more formal styles of arrangement, while sometimes I get the feeling that Fagles might sacrifice more to fluidity than accuracy. However either translator you pick, you’re sure to come away with a thrilling read.

George Guidall reads which is to say, he has you in his spell from word one and doesn’t stop any time soon.

1 comment:

Abecedarius Rex said...

I linked this review on my site. Check it out: