The Iliad by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles: Love and Hate But Mostly Love

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  • The Iliad by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles: Love and Hate But Mostly Love

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

I thought reading The Iliad by Homer (translated by Robert Fagles) would be a chore. Even after I reviewed four different translations and chose one I felt was “best,” I told myself I would have to read at least one chapter a day, just to get through it before it was due at the library. I thought The Iliad would be horribly boring.

I was wrong.

I admit that the first few chapters were hard to get into – I wasn’t used to the characters, and because it began in medias res, I felt a little lost; also, it is a poetic style I am not accustomed to reading. Besides, the second chapter included a list of the boats and characters (a back story) that seemed to drag on and on.

But by the fourth or fifth chapter, I found myself immersed in the story: not only did I empathize with the characters and enjoy the somewhat morbid action-packed battle scenes, but I loved the lilt and feel of the poetry. And while I can’t say whether or not Fagles’ translation was the most accurate of all translations, I certainly found the poem to be beautifully poetic as well as highly readable.

All of that said, I feel I have a love/hate relationship with this book.

Note: As I said yesterday, there may be “spoilers.” But, considering the gods reveal most of the “ending” in the beginning of the book, I don’t think this should be a huge issue.

Love and Hate

I loved Hector. I disliked Achilles. Meeting Hector’s wife and infant son just made him a human. He was so good! But Achilles: am I supposed to like Achilles? Did anyone else like him at all? He was a horrible!

I loved the lengthy family details given about each person as they are killed (even those characters I’d never met before). I disliked how many thousands of names there were. Even if I don’t know the character, before he dies, Homer tells about his father and mother and a number of interesting details about his childhood. As he is stabbed or his limbs are cut off, I can almost hear his parents weeping for him. But why does everyone need three names? (For example, Agamemnon is also called “son of Atreus,” as well as “Atrides,” which derives from his father’s name. He has a brother who is also called “son of Atreus” and “Atrides,” because they have the same father.) Add 100 more people with three names and another 100 killed in detailed battle, and yes, it’s a bit confusing.

I loved the language of the poem. I disliked that I found it a challenge. More about this tomorrow…

I loved the “family squabbles” among the gods. I disliked not being familiar with mythology and who each god or goddess was. I especially liked it when the goddess Hera overpowers Zeus. Zeus may be the god of all, but he still has a weakness: sex. But Greeks were expected to know all about the gods and goddesses: I had a hard time because I didn’t know a lot of the back stories.

I loved the gory details of how each person was killed. I didn’t like it when my favorite characters were killed in battle, even when the gods told me of their fate in the beginning of the book. To give you a better idea of what I mean by gory details, here’s an example:

With that, just as Dolon reached up for his chin
to cling with a frantic hand and beg for life,
Diomedes struck him square across the neck –
a flashing hack of the sword – both tendons snapped
and the shrieking head went tumbling in the dust. (Book Ten, lines 523-527, page 291)

Why did I like the gore? I have no idea. But it was heart breaking when the person at the receiving end was someone I met, even just briefly, for each person had a mother and father weeping over them. As is the case with war, much of the killing was senseless.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I cried. Overall, I really and truly did love to read The Iliad.

What do you love and hate about The Iliad?

Because there is so much I want to share about The Iliad, this is part two (Love and Hate by Mostly Love) of a three-part series about reading The Iliad. Also in the series:

  • The Story
  • Reading the Iliad (Fagles translation) (to come)
Reviewed on November 19, 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.

  • Wow.

    Once upon a time I took classes in Latin and Classic Greek and during Greek we HAD to read passages of both The Odyssey and The Illiad. Being young and more into boys and partying, I guess I can safely say that I felt it was a definite chore to read those ancients sagas.

    Later on at university I took some classes in Ancient History and got to read a bit more (in Danish translation) of those great works and definitely liked them better. I never got into them in a scientific way or so much that I can add anything wise to this debate, but bottomline is, I liked them okay. What made ME cry reading, now that we are talking ancient texts, was the play/tragedy called Women of Troy by Euripides, which is, among other things, about The Illiad. Oh my. I remember how I empathized with those characters. I really cried. Because of an oooold story. Heck, just goes to show that not all those ancient scripts are dusty and boring and unable to reach out to us in this modern day and age.

  • I think you’ve finally done it – you’ve inspired me to read this one.  I’ve always had a thing for the ancient gods/goddesses (have you ever seen the old movie “Clash of the Titans”? it is still a favorite of mine) and I love stories set in that time period.  This will be a book for 2009 for sure!

  • Louise, I can completely understand the chore aspect! At the beginning, I was a bit anxious. But as I let go and let myself enjoy the story, it was so much better! I imagine reading it for a class wouldn’t be as fun because you have to “think” about specifics for tests and papers and so forth.

    As for the Eruipides, someone else mentioned Women of Troy — with your recommendation too, I’ve added it to my list for sure!

  • Heather J., Oh, I’m glad I’ve inspired someone! I too have always enjoyed the gods and goddesses. I haven’t seen that movie but I’m adding it to my netflix queue.

    I wrote a post about translations and I’m writing another post about my thoughts about the Fagles translation for tomorrow, so keep in mind that translation can make a big difference in enjoyment factor… (the one I owned was pretty horrendously impossible to understand…)

  • PS. Just a note on translations. Obviously, being Danish, I have read (passages) of the Homeric works in Danish, but I completely agree with you. Some of the older translations (also in Danish) are virtually impossible to understand. But recent years has seen at least one truly marvellous Danish translation – but that was not out when I “studied” those things (and I have to say, Ancient Greek and Latin were never my head-subjects at Uni, so even though I thought for a while they should be, I chose Ancient Egypt instead – and there are no huge, literary works from that time, really. Or at least they haven’t survived)

  • Louise, I guess the translation styles change through time, no matter the language! As for Ancient Egypt, I guess the hieroglyphics were too hard to tell stories with? I’m sure I’m being stereotypical, but that’s interesting that nothing survived.

  • I’m glad you enjoyed it Rebecca (I’d still give the Lombardo translation a try in the future – that D-Day cover is just weird!).

    I agree that these classics need some ‘getting in to’ but once you do – oh boy!

  • LOL Rebecca, don’t worry about being sterotypical. Loads and loads and loads of texts from Ancient Egypt has survived, but the long, written epic(-ish) tales are, I guess, more of a modern phenomenon. By modern I mean Ancient Greek and Roman. From Ancient Egypt we do have “tales” but they are not as long as the ones from later times and doesn’t have the same fairytale quality if that makes any sense at all.

    Hieroglyphs were not used for writing, except for texts set in stone (on a stelae, tomb wall, temple wall etc). For everyday writing on papyri or ostraca the scribes used a faster handwriting style called hieratic. And in later times the even faster handwriting demotic.
    Okay, better stop now before I go overboard with the Egyptology crash course 😉

  • Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading my review of Palestine by Joe Sacco. The edition I read was indeed a special edition. Here is the version that I read. It’s so great to hear from others who recognize that Sacco’s work adds an important voice and perspective to the dialog on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

  • I’ve always wish I had actually read some of these classics, sort of like I always wish I was the sort of person who actually got Shakespeare.  I’m looking forward to your post about the translation, I’m curious what you thought of the versions (especially after reading the comments between you and Louise).

  • Hi Rebecca

    After many years of false starts and wavering, I recently decided to attempt reading Homer as well as all the existing Greek tragedies (finished Homer and about 75% of the tragedies).

    Like you, I chose the Fagles translation based on a number of recommendations from trusted reviewers and friends. I found it a bit of a tough go at first (the naming of the ships part especially), but really got into it about four or five books in when I finally felt immersed in the poetry.

    I had the same thoughts about Hector and Achilles. The scene with Hector consoling his baby son Astayanax really humanised him, and his interactions with his wife and mother presented him as a noble and virtuous man. Achilles, however, comes across as a spoiled thug in almost all of the book. It’s hard to believe, given our modern sensibilities, that he is the “hero” of this epic. The only part where he seemed normal was Book I; all his subsequent actions – sulking over the loss of Briseis, selfishly withdrawing from battle, asking the gods to assist the Trojans, the human sacrifices, his treatment of Hector’s corpse – really turned me off of him as even a remotely sympathetic character.
    I also liked how the gods were often portrayed as petty and vindictive… not very “god-like” in the modern sense. And how the combatants would introduce themselves and their lineage before proceeding to battle.

    In sum, my experience with The Iliad was very positive… I only wish I had not waited so long to undertake it.

    Also I have had thoughts of examining the Chapman translation of The Iliad, just because I like that Keats’ poem about it so much!

    I would also highly recommend Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Hecuba for their description of the immediate aftermath of the fall of Troy.

    P.S. I have just discoverd your blog.. nice work!


  • Steven Teasdale, Thanks so much for your thoughts! It sounds like you are very well read in this genre. Impressive.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislike Achilles. The introduction to Fagles translation had some great discussion about Achilles: he was like the gods, because the gods didn’t have any sympathy either, so in a sense, he was forgetting his place (i.e., that he’s human).

    I haven’t seen the Chapman translation. I may have to look into it.

  • I’ve had Fagle’s edition for six months now. I was trying to find a book club online because I was thinking I needed “support” to get through it. I will just sit down and start over (got through about 1.5 chapters six months ago) and get through those first chapters to the “meat”.

    Thanks for all the comments — glad to have found your blog.


    • Staci, if you can get through the long list of ships in book two, you’ve nearly won the battle.

      I’m sure the seemingly never-ending parade of boats and men meant quite a bit to an audience full of people believing they could trace ancestries back to the original warriors, but to us, it doesn’t quite seem as interesting…

      Hang in there!

  • Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad is undoubtedly one of the very best. Like so many readers of this greatest of the classics, there is much labor in taking on this great work. However, unlike some translations, Fagles work reads like an adventure with rhythm and movement, once you pick up on the rhythm. This occurs at about the fourth chapter. Once you understand the rhythm and become more familiar with the characters Fagles’ Iliad is damned hard to put down. If there is a readable English language Iliad – this is it. Usually the English are the best at translations of the classics because of their rich literary tradition and wordcraftsmanship. But in this instance, Fagles is a contender for the olive wreath.

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