Review: the Iliad

This is a post for my March book challenge, #marchmonthofmythology.

Today’s prompt for my challenge is ‘Achilles’ and while there are many fun myths about him, I couldn’t pick one I wanted to tell. Instead, I decided to do a review of the Iliad. (But if there’s a particular Achilles myth you’d like to know more about, feel free to ask and I might make a post about it later!) I already talked about the Iliad in my 2016 Favourites, but I never wrote a full-fledged review.

The review contains spoilers, but the Iliad is one of the books that doesn’t get ruined by spoilers because there are very few people who read the Iliad without knowing at least some part of the mythology. In fact, it’s probably a lot easier to read if you do know the story.

Goodreads synopsis: The Iliad is one of the two great epics of Homer, and is typically described as one of the greatest war stories of all time, but to say the Iliad is a war story does not begin to describe the emotional sweep of its action and characters: Achilles, Helen, Hector, and other heroes of Greek myth and history in the tenth and final year of the Greek siege of Troy.

My rating: 5 stars.

Review

I put off reading the Iliad for a long time. I’d already read a children’s version and even translated parts of the Greek text, but I’d never gotten to reading the entire thing – until last summer. I was participating in the 24in48 readathon for the first time, and decided that instead of trying to read a lot of different books, I’d try to read the entire Iliad. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get bored and leave it untouched for weeks – because the reason I hadn’t read the Iliad yet, was that I expected it to be the Odyssey’s boring counterpart.

I read the Odyssey in my first year of university and loved it – it immediately became one of my favourite books. But I’d heard the Iliad was just about war; there were other things in it, sure, but lots of battle scenes too – battle scenes that people found boring. I wanted to read the book, but I also didn’t want to be disappointed. As you might have guessed from my five star rating, I had nothing to be afraid of.

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First, let’s deal with the fight scenes. Yes, there’s a lot of fighting in this book, but it’s not boring! The fight scenes are dynamic and thrilling and quite gruesome. I was surprised by how gory things got (don’t worry, nothing too bad – I’m not the best at handling gore). If there are boring parts in this book, they definitely aren’t the fights.

Then, my (and many people’s) concern that this is a ‘war book’. The short goodreads synopsis already deals with that rumour a little bit, and I’d like to dispel it completely. Yes, the Iliad is about war, but it is not a war book in the sense that it glorifies war – I would say you could call it an anti-war book. War is only ever seen in a negative light. There is sympathy for both the Trojans and the Greeks, even though it is a Greek work. Your attention is drawn to the innocent people who will lose everything once Troy falls; to the women who will be sold into slavery; to the children who will never be able to grow up. The siege of Troy has already lasted nine years and everyone wants to go home. The only thing keeping the Greeks there at this point is the prophecy saying Troy will fall in the tenth year – and that part isn’t even in this book.

Something else I love about the Iliad is how nuanced its characters are. It all starts with a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon, and most modern adaptations put Agamemnon in a bad light. Though he definitely acts terribly at first, the conflict in the Iliad is more nuanced: you can see the sense in both sides. Agamemnon is not acting as a good leader, but Achilles goes way too far in his response – something he has to come to terms with eventually. In the end the story is about wrath, and both sides are wrong in holding on to that. On the other side, that is, in Troy, we have our other hero: Hector. As I said, the reader can sympathise with both the Greeks and the Trojans, and Hector is the prime example of that. Perhaps the most touching scene in the entire epic, according to both ancient and modern scholars, is the one in which Hector says goodbye to his wife and infant son.

There’s a lot more I could say, but for now I’ll end on something light. I don’t want to discourage anyone who thinks the Iliad is too serious for them, because it definitely isn’t. It’s not just fighting and speeches; there are touching moments too, and there is even some comic relief. This comes, perhaps surprisingly, in the form of the gods. As immortal beings they are removed from the action; they take sides, but in the end these mortals don’t really matter to them. So their world mirrors the human world, but the gravity of the problems is taken away. They try to interfere and help their favourite mortals by tricking Zeus in various ways. One of my favourite parts in the Iliad is when Hera is trying to distract Zeus by seducing him, and he tells her he wants her more than he ever wanted [insert a long list of lovers he had affairs with]. In fact, while reading the Iliad I was surprised by how similar these gods are to the ones in Rick Riordan’s books (except it’s the other way around, of course).

I recommend the Iliad to everyone. Preferably in a good poetic translation, but if you struggle reading books in verse, there are prose translations as well. Though the metric verse might be easier to read if you read it out loud – that way you can hear the cadence of the metre. Perhaps there are even good audiobooks?

Achilles – show your heels!

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I realise I haven’t said much about Achilles in my review – that’s because he was never one of the reasons I was afraid to be disappointed. He’s terrible and wonderful and even if you think he’s made the wrong choices, you feel for him (and Patroclus, poor Patroclus). Some fun facts about Achilles: his particular weakness – his heel – is never mentioned in the Iliad, neither is his supposed indestructibility. Those parts of the myth exist in other versions of the story. The Iliad stops before Achilles’ death; the most famous part of the Trojan war, the Trojan horse, isn’t in the Iliad either. What is in the Iliad: Achilles’ heart wrenching cry when he finds out about Patroclus’ death. That hurt me more than the entirety of The Song of Achilles.

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