There’s a new translation of Homer’s Iliad out, done by Caroline Alexander. It’s the first translation of the poem by a woman, although certainly not the first translation of a classic by a woman: Dorothy L. Sayers translated Dante very well many years ago, and Edith Hamilton, among others, translated Greek poetry and prose over the years.
My title is a joke; a reflection, if you will, of the tiredness the contemporary age has felt when approaching the Iliad. Although it may not seem so, we are slowly evolving away from warfare as the great settler of human affairs, and we are even evolving away from male anger as the dominant human emotion across the planet. Thus, Sam Jordison’s question, “Can Homer’s Iliad speak across the centuries?” is vital to answer as we consider just how relevant the poem might be to our time. Jordison’s answer is yes, just as you think a man’s answer might be; but I also observe that Caroline Alexander’s answer is also yes, and so is Madeline Miller’s, in her very fine novel, The Song of Achilles, which, along with the battered copy of the Iliad on my bookshelf, has formed my bedtime reading of late.
These women and men have seen something worthwhile underneath the bloodshed, the heat, the dust, and the oh-so-typical, testosterone-driven rage of men who can’t think any other way. What is it they see? What is it I see?
They see men and women trapped in the roles they’ve accepted or been born into. Those roles are weights they carry throughout the poem. The burdens are everywhere: Helen is hemmed in by both her beauty and her marriage; Achilles is bound, not only by his perpetual quest for glory, but also by the relentless pressure to go out and win every fight he’s challenged to. It matters not that he can win such fights; he still has to go out and do it, knowing that the victory–any victory–may not bring him closer to the fame he seeks. He sulks, yes, but his petulance runs deeper than that of a spoiled child. It’s rooted in the knowledge and the pain he has that he can win any fight, yet feel no sense of triumph, because the victory is based upon winning a small patch of ground, not upon gaining an eternal sense of renown. And Helen? On the surface, she’s no more than a Kardashian woman, famous for being famous. But beneath the surface, she wrestles with the questions of whom to love and how to live, just as we all do.
The poem also speaks movingly of the griefs of old age, and of the ultimate futility of all that rage. Hector’s death and Priam’s suffering were meant to be commentaries on both of these problems, and part of the Iliad‘s excellence is that it dealt so long ago and so well with them. Like all great poems, it stands poised between the moments of offering us solutions to those problems and the invitation to go find our own solutions. We can, if we wish, see it simply as a monumental, archaic specimen of the patriarchal world that was, but there’s more to it than that. Everybody’s in it; we all have a place: kings, queens, men, women, soldiers, and fools. Nobody’s really exempt from the wrath of Achilles because his wrath is our wrath–the burning desire, the rage we all have to make something of this world, to carve out some great accomplishment by which our descendants might remember us.