I do not speak or read Greek, I have never been to Greece, but I have grown up with, and still read retellings of the 2,500 year old story of the Trojan War.
From a picture book given me for Christmas when I was five, right through the Adele Geras’ excellent Troy, the Iliad has been lurking in my reading background. I guess the hundreds of writers and their thousands of readers who have been drawn to the complexities of political alliances and blood feuds, Gods and demigods, heroes and slaves and horses can’t all be lemming-like in their shared enthusiasm.
I got round to reading an actual translation of the Iliad in the late 1980’s: the Penguin Classic translation by Martin Hammond. And I was hooked all over again.
What is the attraction?
The basic story is … I was going to say ‘is fairly straightforward’, but it really isn’t (clears throat) … the basic story is possible to boil down to the essentials:
Goddesses argue, Paris Judges, Aphrodite wins: Paris steals Helen from Menelaus, Menelaus calls in a lot of favours, and most of the rulers of the Greek kingdoms set out to Troy to win her back. Ten years of war follow, lots of gods interfere, many more people die; Odysseus tricks the Trojans into letting the army in by hiding inside a giant wooden horse, Troy burns to the ground, the end.
The language is often ritualistic and repetitive, the detail ruthless and frequently cold; But every character has a name, and sometimes we are told the names of their father and mother too, as though this was actually history; and in each death told (in forensic detail), a minor character has their moment in the spotlight. It really ought to be tedious, it really ought to disgust, but I find it hypnotic, and having had the story interpreted so many different ways by so many different people over the years it was interesting to read something approximating the original (and I do not generally like translations.)
Putting aside the literary merit of the translation (and this one suited me, unlike a translation of the Odyssey which was not at all to my taste) I liked that sides are not taken by Homer (whoever he was/they were). Although simplistically I could take the Greeks as the ‘heroes’ because they win, the Trojans get equal billing in both sympathy and praise. I was pleasantly surprised at how much the women have to say, and found myself wondering what it would be like to be Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world (Behind the Mask), or Cassandra, the Prophet no one will listen to (The Horses of Troy), or Briseïs, the slave who is the cause of the fatal rift between Achilles and Agamemnon (The Owl’s Handmaiden); and, moving on to The Odyssey, Penelope, waiting twenty years for her husband to come home (Penelope Is No Longer Waiting)
Recently I discovered Christopher Logue’s War Music and its sequels, All Day Permanent Red and Cold Calls, an interpretation of most (sadly, not yet all) of the Iliad, and got re-enthused all over again by his cool clean incisive poetry. This is when I remember what poetry can do in a few lines, which would take a paragraph in prose.
‘Fast as you are,’ Achilles says,
When twilight makes the armistice,
Take care you don’t leave me behind
As you left my Patroclus.’
And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,
God will not call us negligent as you have done.’
And Achilles, shaken, says:
‘I know I will not make old bones.’
And laid his scourge against the racing flanks.
Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.
The beauty of this writing brings on a fit of dissatisfaction with my own work…
…I go back to my story of the slave girl, and re-write it, paring away explanation and observation, until little remains but her voice as she whispers her fears to her gods.
This is perhaps why Homer allows for so many reinterpretations, there is so much space to fill; so many characters just glanced at in passing, who can be fleshed out.
The story has such strong bones that it is safe to embroider and imagine whatever you please, without denting it or pulling it out of true.
copyright Cherry Potts 2010