Homer’s Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell, audiobook, read by Alfred Molina,. Review by Simone Witney.
‘Rage’ is the first word of the Iliad and its theme. ‘ Anger’, says Achilles ‘far sweeter than trickling honey, expands in the breast like smoke’. Mitchell prioritises contemporary idiom (for which he has a gift) and smoothness of delivery over some of the richness of the original. Individually his omissions are hard to justify, but assisted by the faultless narration by Alfred Molina, whose understanding is so refined, there is an immediacy which is as close as we will get to the experience of those early Greek audiences.
The poem is set in the context of a war between the Greeks and Trojans. Historically it would have been a fight for power over the Aegean, in theIliad its for the restitution of the bond of trust between host and guest which was central to social stability. It draws on a rich oral tradition of myth and culture: you’ll hear of shipwrights, prophets, trainers of racing horses, farmers, weavers, goldsmiths. Yet for a poem which appears to create a cohesive national identity for the first time, it’s extraordinarily lacking in ideology. Trojans and Greeks are treated with the same level of empathy. You would expect a noble Greek leader, a dastardly Trojan one, but Agamemnon is unstable, often thuggish, while Priam, King of Troy, treats Helen, the remorseful cause of the conflict, with affection and in great humility goes to kiss the hand of the man who kills his son, hoping to negotiate a return of the body.
The violence is extreme. When Achilles goes on a killing spree to avenge his comrade Patroclus’ death, he fills the river with bodies. The river rises up to engulf him in revenge: ‘and his armour clanged in his chest as he tried to run out from under the huge wave, desperate to escape, but the river surged on with a thunderous roar’. This is a fine expression of that limbic state of mind experienced in war where rationality is extinguished in response to trauma. Wounds are described with unflinching anatomical accuracy. Yet there’s a constant thread of tenderness too: the head of a dying man droops like a poppy.
This emotional acuity is evident throughout. All the warriors experience feelings of invincibility punctured by moments of hesitation, self doubt, or pure terror. This can lead to some dramatic dislocation: one moment a warrior is bearing down on his enemy like a raging torrent, the next he is checking on his mental state, or having a courtly or boastful exchange with his adversary about their parentage. There’s a serious desire here however to convey how combatants experience war : how do they psyche themselves up to do terrible things? Is it through honour, loyalty, machismo, grief? How do they cope with failure? How do they resolve conflicts? What are the boundaries?
The gods, by contrast, seem picaresque, with Zeus barely able to keep a lid on the conflicts of his huge family of warring individuals. They are vehicles of enchantment, part of the imaginative heritage, but their role is a more serious one: first to mirror the conflicts of mortals, to show different methods of resolution, of getting what you want. Second, they carry different parts of the psyche, so when Helen sleeps with Paris, despite the loss of her initial passion, and regretting her seduction, it is under threats from Aphrodite. They also carry the unpredictability of reality, it’s as if whatever humans do to hedge their bets, by the proper observances, there is always another god they have neglected or who has opposing interests. Theres no uncomfortable philosophical hopping between fate and choice: humans have agency, it just doesn’t always work out. Mortals vary too in their ability to recognise the gods: the best warriors usually know when the person they are speaking to is a god in disguise, lesser mortals do not. This all still today seems a fair description of the puzzling inconstancy of reality; we recognise that some people have especial nous, but of a world we can only know imperfectly with our ever fluctuating ability to understand and engage with it effectively.
Like the best psychotherapist, Homer unpicks reality, setting out its elements with consistent empathy and respect in plain light. It’s up to us what we make of it.