Book for the Road, No. 5

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.

Opening line from “The Iliad”

Wow. What a way to begin a story! Yet, I suppose a great opening is to be expected from a book that is still read some 2,800 years after it was written.

This is one that I’ve wanted to read for a long time (I have a lot of books like that!). The catalyst for actually reading it came down to a walk through Aggieville in Manhattan, Kansas with my brother, Ty. After browsing through The Dusty Bookshelf, we stumbled on this copy in the $1 bargain bin outside. I didn’t have any change on me, but luckily Ty came to the rescue – allowing this post to be made!

Prior to reading The Iliad, my experience with it was pretty basic: I had heard of Troy, Achilles, Hector, and most of the main characters. I had also seen the movie Troy, though I guessed Hollywood was probably not all that faithful to the story (as is often the case). I was also excited to read about the Trojan Horse and was interested in reading the scene where Achilles dies from an arrow to the heel, since you often hear about the Achilles’ heel.

Now, for anyone who has read The Iliad, you can understand why I was surprised that the story ends with Troy still standing, and with Achilles still alive.

While I imagined the story being an all-encompassing tale about the Trojan War, it only covers a few weeks within the ten-year siege. It is not so much a story of the war, but rather a glimpse into the lives of those who were fighting in it – with the battle merely a backdrop.

What it’s more focused on is exactly what Homer lays out in the opening line of the story — the opening word, in fact: the rage of Achilles.

It is Achilles’ rage that drives the story forward. It first takes place through his inaction after being offended by Agamemnon, when the king took Briseis away from him. Because Achilles (who is the greatest warrior of the Achaeans) does not fight, the Achaeans are slaughtered by Hector and the Trojans. Achilles also forbade his Myrmidons from fighting, as well. However, the constant onslaught finally persuades Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, to fight. After beating the Trojans back to the city walls, Patroclus is struck down by Hector, who strips him of the armor Achilles let him wear.

This is where Achilles’ rage shifts its focus, but still drives the story forward. He now forgets his quarrel with Agamemnon (who also gives Briseis back) and now his rage is centered on Hector. After driving the Trojans back to the city, Achilles vanquishes noble Hector, and avenges his friend.

There were many more themes, such as how mortal men (and even the gods) cannot escape fate, and how glory is found in battle. I also enjoyed how the gods were central characters to the story, and how they interceded (or chose not to) on behalf of the mortals.

In all, this was a fantastic book that was a little different that what I was expecting – yet was thrilling from beginning to end. It is also both humbling and incredible to think that a story written so long ago can still be relevant to us today.

Plus, being one of the most important books in the Western canon – one of the “Great Books” – it is a must-read!

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