The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation) - Homer, Stephen Mitchell UPDATE JAN 2013: I finished reading [a:Stephen Mitchell|6373|Stephen Mitchell|]'s translation soon after the New Year and can't recommend it enough.

And, as with any good literature, I find that upon rereading the Iliad, I got something more out of it. Something that had nothing to do with my first impressions noted below (and that I'll elaborate upon more fully in my review of David Malouf's [b:Ransom: A Novel|8194864|Ransom A Novel|David Malouf||6651239] when I finish that book).

Up to now, I’ve only read fragments of The Iliad. First as an undergrad in various Western Civ and Greek history classes, then as a TA in grad school (for the same classes just from the other side of the podium). I even got to translate fragments in my Greek-language classes. But I never had a desire to read it on my own. Three things have militated against reading it up to now: Until recently, I hadn’t done a lot of poetry reading. That prejudice began to crack about 15 years ago when a former flame introduced me to Dickinson and Plath. I then read John Gardner’s epic recasting of Medea ([b:Jason and Medeia|1254578|Jason and Medeia|John Gardner||2026821]). The “block” is still pretty high but I’m far more open to poetry now than in my youth.

A second factor in my reluctance was that The Iliad lacks any reasonably sympathetic character. Among the “heroes” there’s Odysseus (perhaps) but he doesn’t really get a chance to shine until Homer gives him his own epic. Even then, for me, Odysseus has always been an anti-hero rather than someone to admire or emulate. Hector, too, generates some sympathy but not for anything “heroic.” Rather it’s his interplay with Andromache and Astyanax that makes him a real person.

The final impediment to reading this classic is that I already know why it’s so important – why read the original when I have a wealth of analyses by men and women who’ve done it for me?

Yet – there’s always been a nagging guilt that I hadn’t read it. When I saw that an audio cassette of the Fagles translation was available at the library, I decided this was a prime opportunity to assuage that guilt (after all, I had enjoyed both Gilgamesh and Beowulf much more in their audio incarnations).

So, having finished it, did I learn anything? Were my perceptions and preconceptions challenged and/or changed? Up to cassette 6, side A, I would have had to say “no.” But then I heard a line that fundamentally altered my view of the poem and made it pertinent in a wholly unexpected way. It was the point where Homer says that Paris chose Aphrodite (as the fairest) for love. The whole poem fell into place then, and I understood what it meant to me and why Homer had written it (or had sung it) in the manner he did. After all, there’s this schizophrenic attitude apparent on the author’s part: Though much of the tale revolves around the “glorious” exploits of Akhaia’s and Troy’s greatest warriors or the machinations of the gods, there is yet a sense that Homer despises his subjects, finding worth only in those human moments when they exhibit glimpses of love, charity and compassion.

When I heard that line, though, I knew how to see the poem: As a cri de coeur against a world where Love seems unable to prevail against the brutality of War (Ares/Athena) and the cold rationalism and realpolitik of Wisdom (Hera/Athena). At that moment, I saw Paris in an utterly new light. He’s still a fool but not because he chose Aphrodite so much as that he chose her without considering the consequences. Heck, in this light, I could argue that he does realize what he’s doing but chose Love regardless, making him the bravest figure in the poem (it reminds me of a line from the song “You’ll Never Be the Sun” – “You won’t find that love comes easy, but that love is always right”).

So let this be a lesson: Works of art do not survive 3,000 years because of a fluke. They survive because they speak to audiences across time, space & culture. Perhaps not clearly, perhaps not in the way the author originally intended, but speak they do.

Sidebar: This version of The Iliad is not harmed by Derek Jacobi’s wonderful reading. He makes the poem come vibrantly alive with a masterful command of its rhythms, characters and voices without distracting from the content.