Reading The Iliad by Homer, trans. by Robert Fagles

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Reading The Iliad (trans. by Robert Fagles) isn’t like reading a modern-day novel: I think it did take a level of concentration I’m not accustomed to. But that just proved to me that the “difficult pleasure” of reading is highly worth experiencing.

The Robert Fagles translation was poetic and rhythmic. Once I became accustomed to reading poetry, I felt it was highly readable.

Reading Notes

I’m not accustomed to reading epic poetry, but I thought I’d collect some of my thoughts about how I found it to be most fun.

As I have said, I don’t believe it’s possible to write about The Iliad with containing some “spoilers”: the gods give up the ending from the beginning.

  • As I read, I didn’t let myself stop and try to figure out all the relationships and characters as I read The Iliad. I’m also currently reading The Silmarillion, which also has a huge number of (unpronounceable) names and places, and I found letting go of the details makes it much more fun. I don’t think memorizing the details of characters is essential. These are books where the feel of the language and the sense of the battle is more important. (I really did enjoy learning the background of all the people who were killed in battle.)
  • I did reference Edith Hamilton’s Mythology a few times to get some background on the gods and goddesses. The back of the book also has line by line notes; however, I wish there was some indication in the text when a line had a note so I could have known when to turn back and get the information. As it was, the reader just has to remember to turn back occasionally.
  • By the end, the different language didn’t seem so hard to understand; I had gotten used to it. So don’t give up, especially with Book Two, which seemed to drag on. I suspect if I read more books like this, it will become easier. Some others commented that it took them 4 or 5 books to get into it, as well! So it’s not just me.
  • I read Bernard Knox’s introduction after I read the poem. I didn’t know any of the plot before reading it. Because Knox details many detailed aspects of the poem and expands upon them, I highly recommend doing the same. Of course, now I also want to reread the poem…
  • A reader commented that she listened to it. Since this was the way it was originally experienced, I think that would be an excellent way to experience it!

What tricks to find help you understand and “get into the groove” of a new reading style (like epic poetry)?

The Translation

I loved reading the Fagles translation. I can’t compare it to others very accurately at this point because I’ve only read The Iliad once. However, sometimes I’d pick up the book, read a line, and get the chills because I thought it was so beautiful.

For example, I began reading Book 19 and was overcome with the beauty of the dawn:

As Dawn rose up in her golden robe from Ocean’s tides,
bringing light to immortal gods and mortal men,
Thetis sped Hephaestus’s gifts to the ships. (Book 19, lines 1-3, page 488)

I’d mentioned that I also wanted to read the Stanley Lombardo translation. I was excited to see how he treated this beautiful passage. I was horribly disappointed, but that disappointment may simply be a style preference:

Dawn shrouded in saffron
Rose out of the deep water with light
For immortals and humans alike. And Thetis
Came to the ships with Hephaestus’ gifts. (Book 19, lines 1-4, page 374)

Lombardo’s translation got the message across, but to me, it seemed to lack all of the poetry. I may read still read Lombardo’s translation; I do want to reread the poem. This really failed the “poetic” test for me. I was not impressed.

Which translation style do you prefer? Do you think Lombardo’s is poetic?

The Next Step

Now that I’ve read The Iliad once, I also am interested in reading the Lattimore and the Lombardo translations, as well as Christopher Logues’s War Music, which is not a translation, but a “version.” I also want to listen to The Iliad, as someone suggested in a comment the other day.

Which other translations can you recommend? Have you read any interesting commentary on The Iliad?

Because there is so much I want to share about The Iliad, this is part three (Reading the Iliad, Fagles Translation) of a three-part series about reading The Iliad. Also in the series:

Reviewed on November 20, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • If you didn’t like the feel of Lombardo’s translation, how about Fitzgerald? His is slightly archaic in tone but it is very lyrical – the most poetic of the modern translations =]

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