A Reading Life

Looking at ‘The Iliad’ and seeing ourselves

By Katherine Powers
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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I first read “The Iliad” as a young person aboard the M.V. Britannic crossing the North Atlantic. It was a tossup, so to speak, as to which made me feel worse, the hideous seas or the epic itself. With expectations formed from reading 19th-century swashbuckling novels, I thought that “The Iliad” would present unambiguous heroes and villains and the spectacle of fierce battlefield action in an ancient, exotic world where honor and glory reigned supreme. Instead I was confounded from the very start: There was Agamemnon, head of the (good) Greeks, throwing his weight around in an unedifying manner, and the great Achilles, going off in a snit and never, in my view, satisfactorily showing up his commander as the loser he is.

Moreover, though Paris of the (bad) Trojans was a ne’er-do-well fop of the sort I was familiar with from my reading, he gets off scot-free; while his brother, Hector, a loving husband and doting father, is killed. (I hope I’m not giving anything away.) But what distressed me most was the constant thwarting of my expectation that this war would be about doing the right thing as understood by me and my 19th-century instructors. Instead, the pages seemed to be filled with a yearning for home and peace, sadness over a savorless afterlife, and a lot of pointless death. I finished the book, merely skimming some of it, feeling inadequate and uneasy; and ever after I associated it with this dreadful voyage and the smell of mint tea and Bovril.

As many people have noted, every age has its Homer. Actual 19th-century readers of English translations of Homer did, in fact, manage to find the attainment of honor and glory to be central and laudatory in its verses, and many 20th-century readers too. Bernard Knox is one. In his splendid introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of “The Iliad” (1990, Penguin, $17), the classical scholar (and, as it happens, veteran of both the International Brigade and World War II) says that Achilles’s break with Agamemnon is a “private quarrel” over his outraged honor, and, further, that he would never have relinquished glory in combat for a long, peaceful life at home, even though, in the poem, Achilles summons up precisely that image with longing and regret.

But in what is now a new century, quite another view exists. Caroline Alexander’s extraordinary contrarian work, “The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s ‘Iliadand the Trojan War” (Viking, $26.95) opens a new door on the epic.

She sees Achilles’s row with Agamemnon as being one in which honor is subsidiary to the main significance, which is, as Achilles points out, that Agamemnon has dragged him and his men away from their homes into a war that has nothing at all to do with them. What’s more, as Achilles further tells Agamemnon, the latter has shown himself to be an unworthy commander, both in acting in bad faith with respect to prizes and in keeping himself out of danger. (“You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never once have you taken courage in your own heart . . . to arm with your people for battle, or go into ambuscade . . . No, for in such things you see death. Far better to your mind . . . to take away the gifts of any man who speaks up against you.”)

“As the ‘Iliad’ makes relentlessly clear,” Alexander writes, “the best warrior at Troy . . . will die in a war in which he finds no meaning.” She shows how the long poem both adheres to the martial tradition of heroic epics out of which it came but, and at the same time, undermines the traditional priority of honor and glory by emphasizing the waste and tragedy of war. She goes through the epic, glossing it most helpfully, exploring its antecedents, and noting the presence and tug of the larger, time-honored story of which it was only a part. That is that Troy was destroyed and, eventually, so were its conquerors, the decadelong siege having culled the best men and impoverished the survivors who were met by dissolution, intrigue, and death on their return to their forsaken homes.

Some thousands of years after their composition, Homer’s great epics live on, carrying within themselves the mysterious burden of history and myth, much invisible or incomprehensible to us now. At the same time, the poems’ meaning is ever mutating to reflect each era’s preoccupation. For Alexander, the “Iliad” grapples with such questions as: “Is a warrior ever justified in challenging his commander? Must he sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause?” and in “giving his life for his country, does a man betray his family?” Although he and the wars he fought in are not mentioned once, Pat Tillman haunts the first part of Alexander’s book, and it is impossible to think that its author’s interpretation was not in some degree inspired by his story and by our own pointless, ruinous wars in the Middle East. Certainly this association is in the air, for “The Iliad” itself informs Jon Krakauer’s fine, excoriating “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Doubleday, $27.95).

For whatever reason - though our state of perpetual war seems the most likely - there has been a great spate of books engendered by Homer recently. In addition to the two above, I have before me David Malouf’s “Ransom” (Pantheon, $24), which takes Priam, king of Troy, as its subject, and Zachary Mason’s “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $24). The last purports to be 44 variations of Odysseus’s story found in an Egyptian rubbish mound. The vignettes are ingenious expressions of the protean nature of the legend, offering topsy-turvy, inside-out versions of the events and characters that appear in Homer’s epics, while, at the same time preserving the feeling of a lost, ancient world. Though a melancholy sense of being adrift pervades most of the tales, they are still jubilant in execution. Perverse and irreverent, they revise the story as set down by Homer and remodel his characters. Occasional pedestrian matters crop up to embarrass the epic mood and an impious wit darts throughout. Indeed, these variations remind me somewhat of the sections in Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds” that concern mad King Sweeney and Finn MacCool. Higher praise than that is not at my disposal.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at