Book Review

Achilles Hath the Mighty Hector Slain

In a long poem filled with horrors—the deaths in battle of hundreds of named soldiers whose mortal wounds are described with clinical exactitude—there is perhaps no greater moment of horror in the Iliad than the description, in Book 23, of Patroclus’ funeral. Patroclus’ death in battle has been ironically a gift to the Greeks, as it has brought Achilles out of his egotistical funk and back to the fight. But to Achilles himself, the death of his closest friend is a tragedy exceeding all the other tragedies of nine long years of war with the Trojans. For the funeral, he has a pyre built that is said to be a hundred feet tall and a hundred feet wide, on which Patroclus’ body is placed. Many sheep and cows are sacrificed, and their fat is used to cover the body, while what’s left of the carcasses is piled around the corpse. Four horses and two hunting dogs are added for good measure, as well as jars of oil and honey, which Achilles leans against the bier. As though that were insufficient, in a final unspeakable act, Achilles slits the throats of a dozen young Trojan men and throws them on the pyre as well, before setting everything alight. (In Book 18, he had told his followers, the Myrmidons, that he would perpetrate this sacrifice.) At least, he tries to set everything alight. The pyre will not catch fire—is this a rebuke from nature, perhaps, for Achilles’ savagery?—until the Greek hero calls on the North and West Winds to come and blow the flames into life. Achilles’ plan for the corpse of Hector is likewise foiled. He wanted to feed Hector’s body to the dogs in a final act of desecration and disrespect, but Aphrodite and Apollo intervene to keep Hector pristine, as though he were a martyr destined to become a saint.
As Simone Weil demonstrated in her famous essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” first published in French in 1940, it has always been difficult not to read Homer’s epic poem of war in the light of current events; nor perhaps is it any easier now, with the war in Gaza happening just 1,200 kilometers from Hissarlik, the modern name for the site of ancient Troy in Turkey. The casus belli will always be specific and different in any given war, but the risks are parallel no matter what the period of history; and the emotions engendered by and on account of war—revenge, hope, grief, despair, comradeship, pride, fear, and so on—are identical. War has always been brutal, and Homer’s various ways of specifying the moment of death (“His body was undone,” “darkness / covered his eyes,” “His limbs untied,” “life left his limbs and cruel darkness / seized him”) can still bring a lump to a reader’s throat. In the voices of various gods and men, Homer characterizes war as “the source of tears,” “[that] which devours human hearts,” and “the ruin of humanity.” Ares, the Greek god of war, is described as “the curse to mortals” and “human killer.” Achilles, of all people, the great hero on the Greek side, muses aloud to his mother in Book 18, sounding like an inexperienced teenager who nevertheless sees through adult bafflegab to an unarguable truth: “If only conflict were eliminated / from gods and human beings! I wish anger / did not exist.” (Achilles’ anger, we remember, is at the heart of the Iliad’s narrative, and he is described in Book 13 as “a man whose thirst for war is never sated.”) There is a tragicomic, domestic quality to the roots of the war in Troy—a wife abandons her husband for a more beautiful younger man—as well as to the theme of the poem, Achilles’ wrath, which is also occasioned by the theft of a woman. Like an adolescent, Achilles sulks in his tent and refuses to fight after Agamemnon takes Briseis, a woman Achilles won as war booty, in compensation for the loss of his own war prize, a woman named Chryseis. It is remarkable that, while present in the early part of the poem, Helen herself essentially disappears for many books, appearing again only at the conclusion of Book 24, where she adds her voice to those of Andromache and Hecuba (Hector’s wife and mother respectively) in praising the now dead Hector. Her sublimely beautiful face causes the launch of a thousand ships, as Christopher Marlowe put it, and then she seems to sit quietly on the sidelines with little to say.
Since George Chapman’s version of the Iliad was collected in his folio works of Homer (1616), Homer’s poem has been translated into English many, many times, an extraordinary thing for a poem of 15,693 lines. A few English versions are famous: Alexander Pope’s in rhyming couplets (1715–20), E. V. Rieu’s in prose (1950), just by virtue of being published as a Penguin paperback, and modern poetic versions by Richmond Lattimore (1951) and Robert Fitzgerald (1974). The Iliad has been translated by a philosopher (Thomas Hobbes), an English Prime Minister (the 14th Earl of Derby), a scientist (Sir John Herschel, the son of the discoverer of Uranus and himself the inventor of the cyanotype photographic process), a novelist (Samuel Butler), and not a few others who might with some justification be called cranks (Cardinal Newman’s brother Francis, for example). More than a dozen translations have been published in the twenty-first century alone, and to that number can be added the Iliadic transmogrifications of two poets: Christopher Logue’s War Music (2015) and Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2011). Mention should also be made of Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), a book-length poem in tercets whose protagonist’s name is Achille. The Homeric modernizations of Pound and Joyce continue to bear fruit, just as the original Greek text continues to find valiant scholars and classically educated poets determined to try their hand at a daunting body of poetry.
Emily Wilson is among those scholars. Her translation of the Odyssey was published in 2018, and to it she has now added a version of the Iliad.[1] She is a classics professor (at the University of Pennsylvania), not a poet; and she decided after some experimentation with dactylic hexameter to set the poetry in a loose iambic pentameter, a choice that many other recent translators have made. (Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fagles opted for a six-beat line, however.) Chapman’s long, loping lines can feel flaccid and enervated:


And one renown’d exploit of his I am assur’d is true;
He came to the Mycenian court, without arms, and did sue
At godlike Polinices’ hands, to have some worthy aid
To their designs, that ’gainst the walls of sacred Thebes were laid.[2]


Turning a hexameter poem into a pentameter poem inevitably means that it will be longer: Homer’s 15,693 lines become Wilson’s 20,231. Wilson’s line is quite flexible. It often contains eleven rather than ten syllables; and while she is cognizant of the value of metrical substitution—she points out in her Translator’s Note that the very first word of her version (“Goddess”) is a trochee, not an iamb—the language of her translation rarely achieves the heights of great poetry, while being eminently readable. Her stated aspiration is that it be recitable too. As she puts it, “I hope that the use of this meter will invite reading out loud, honoring the oral heritage of the original.” Certainly her language is never flowery, nor is her syntax complicated. Lattimore, for one, was given to a style that is not easily read aloud:


When Zeus had driven against the ships the Trojans and Hektor,
he left them beside these to endure the hard work and sorrow
of fighting without respite, and himself turned his eyes shining
far away, looking out over the land of the Thracian riders
and the Mysians who fight at close quarters, and the proud Hippomolgoi,
drinkers of milk, and the Abioi, most righteous of all men.[3]


Wilson by contrast sounds more laid back and contemporary:


When Zeus had brought the Trojans, led by Hector,
up to the Greek ships, he abandoned them
to endless suffering and misery.
He turned his shining eyes away and gazed
towards the country of the Thracian horse-lords,
the warlike Mysians and the Hippemolgi
who live on mare’s milk, and the Abii,
most righteous human beings in the world.


(Most of the older translations, like Lattimore’s, use “men” in that final line, rather than “human beings,” although Rieu avoids the sexual politics of the choice altogether by electing to use “folk.” The Greek word is anthropos, and Wilson employs the same alternative elsewhere, writing “gods and human beings,” for example, in Book 5, where most earlier translations say “gods and men.”)
There are many other ways in which Wilson’s translation reflects current usages and prohibitions. The word “booty” is rejected in favor of “loot,” for example, although she also uses “spoils.” She refuses to use the word “lame” in describing the god Hephaestus, who fashions a new suit of armor (and the famous shield) for Achilles after his armor is lost in battle by Patroclus. Instead, he is described multiple times as “the famous god whose legs are bent,” which seems an awkward circumlocution. He is also “the god who walks on twisted feet.” She makes Achilles sound like our contemporary by having him expostulate in Book 1 with the word “incredible,” a word which has no equivalent in the Greek (“Incredible! You dress in shame! You are / obsessed with getting profits for yourself!”). Agamemnon addresses his fellow warrior Diomedes with the ultimate informal greeting: “Hey Diomedes! / Son of the skillful horse-lord Tydeus!” (Will a future translator continue down that pathway and dare to use “Yo!”?) Wilson avoids using the word “bitch” as an insult, although it is a perfectly acceptable translation of the relevant Greek word. Perhaps oddly, Wilson chooses to have Hector call Ajax a “peasant,” where other translators choose the less classist “ox,” “bully,” and (once) “clodhopper”; and occasionally she drops into an unexpected bit of British English, once using the expression “I do believe!” and in other places referring to grown men as “dear boy.” “Might and main” stands out in Book 14 as slightly antiquarian, largely because Wilson normally avoids old-fashioned words, unlike, say, Fitzgerald, who is happy to use “thews” and “beeves,” among other words that have largely disappeared from contemporary English. A few other word choices also strike one as unexpected: the somewhat rustic “teat” instead of breast or udder; “bride-price,” which sounds undeniably like an Anglo-Saxon kenning, instead of dowry; “fruitless” to describe the sea (Rieu chose barren); “wide-wayed” as a descriptor of Troy, when she means that the city has broad streets; and “I will catch you up” in Book 6 and “listen out” in Book 10—Americanisms that sound out of place in a poem from 2,800 years ago. To describe a trench as “great big” seems unnecessarily colloquial, perhaps. (Other versions have “broad,” “profound,” “enormous,” and “deep.”) She invents the word “shieldsmanship” in Book 7, where some translators simply omit the words and others invent an elaborate and wordy locution. There is also the moment when Hector calls Diomedes “you silly little thing,” a phrase that is both underwhelming (this is the great Hector!) and off the mark tonally. The Greek (kakē glenē) means literally “bad doll” or “bad plaything.” Chapman’s “immartial minion” is rather nice, but antiquated. Other translators used “you empty doll” (Fitzgerald), “you poor doll” (Lattimore), “glittering little puppet” (Robert Fagles), and “you coward, you puppet” (Barry Powell). In Rieu’s prose version, Diomedes is an “empty doll,” which Fitzgerald copied. And finally, when a soldier named Oileus is killed by Agamemnon, Wilson writes that “his brains were turned to mush.” Later on, another soldier has his brains “scrambled.” These words seem too informal by half. Other versions invoke words like “spattered” and “clottered [sic],” words infinitely more effective at making the reader shiver with disgust.
Emily Wilson’s goals for her translation are set out at length in her Translator’s Note. Metaphorically speaking, she aspires to “a voice of bronze, a voice of wind, a voice of fire. I needed to forge greatness without hyperbole, power without pomposity: as massive as a mountain, as soft as night, as powerful as sleep.” Even a true poet might find all of this a tall order. She goes on to express the hope that her version of the Greek will evoke for “any reader or listener . . . the excitement and joy of holding a weapon and plunging it into the soft flesh of an enemy.” (This particular reader would like to say thanks, but no thanks.) She tries to avoid “colloquial or slangy phrases” in order not to misrepresent the high tone of the Greek, and to retain the epithets—which readers have long felt are arguably unnecessary, at least more than once or twice—as well as the repeated parts of the poem which betray its oral origins. (The epithets can be a trial: Variants of “Gerenian Nestor, horse-lord,” for example, occur six times over the course of just two and a half pages.)
In general, Wilson achieves these goals. While she does not compose anything approaching uniformly brilliant poetry, at times she breaks through her workaday pentameters to something higher in effect. A passage in Book 13 shows that she is able to wield the tools of the poet effectively:


Each of you must implant deep in your heart
a sense of shame and fear of blame. The danger
is very great. Their loud, ferocious leader,
Hector, is making war beside our ships.
He broke the bar and burst right through our gates.


Two of the lines in this passage have an extra syllable, and the iambic rhythm audibly falls away in line 3; but the internal rhyme and alliteration are effective, and show that Wilson can be attentive to the music of poetry. Another passage, this time from Book 18, is equally demonstrative of her skills:


The raiders saw their target and attacked
from both sides and cut off the herd of cattle
and fine fat flock of bright white sheep, and killed
the herders.


She resists modernizing the often paratactic structure of Homer’s Greek, a tactic which helps to maintain something of the story’s otherness. For example, after a long list of Nereids’ names in Book 18, Wilson translates faithfully a three-part sentence which could easily have been “corrected” into main and subordinate clauses:


They filled the shining silver cave and all
pounded their chests and Thetis led the mourning.


Homer did not use end-rhyme, and on the whole neither does Wilson. The occasional exception (“We men are numerous and brave, / and ready to defend the town and save / our loving parents, wives, and sons”) exists for the reader with an acute ear to notice, and may even have happened by chance. Another challenge in the poem is the speeches. The Iliad is replete with speeches. The leaders speak. The gods speak. Even a horse speaks! Often these speeches are somewhat tedious, and rarely do they have the dramatic authenticity of real people expressing real feelings in a way that we as readers might speak, were we suddenly transformed into the head of an army or a great warrior. Wilson does her best with this aspect of Homer’s narrative, and occasionally her English rises to an almost Shakespearean level, as for example when, in Book 24, Priam memorializes his fallen son, Hector:


He was not like the son of some mere mortal,
but of a god. Those sons were killed by Ares,
and only trash is left—you tricksters, dancers,
superb at tapping rhythms with your feet,
thieves of your neighbors’ lambs and baby goats.


This is powerful English, and even the perhaps unlikely word “trash” adds to its force. Pope’s “soft and servile crew” or Fitzgerald’s “poltroons” are jejune by comparison. Wilson is also very good at translating the many apothegms that dot Homer’s poem: “[F]lirtation makes the wisest lose their minds,” for example, or “The Fates gave humans an enduring heart.”
There are also aspects of Wilson’s Iliad which seem to me less successful. Her stated wish to have the poem sound contemporary in tone leads her at times to choose specific words which stand out as inappropriate, even if they are technically accurate. In Book 2, for example, Odysseus berates Thersites by calling him a “blabbermouth,” a twentieth-century coinage that one might expect more in a TV sitcom than in an ancient epic poem. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s “sack of wind” is a little old-fashioned now, and Barry Powell’s “fancy with words” somewhat underwhelming. Rieu’s “driveling fool” still works well, however. In another example, found in a speech in Book 3 in which Hector berates Paris for retreating before Menelaus’ aggression, he tells him that the gifts he has received from Aphrodite—“your lyre, your hair, and your attractiveness”—will be as nothing once he is “lying mingled with the dust.” The word “attractiveness” again seems too modern. Barry Powell’s “good looks” is no better, but Robert Fagles’ “striking looks” seems just right and Lattimore’s “all your beauty” equally apt. In a further example, from Book 5, Dione, a sea goddess and supposedly the mother of Aphrodite, apostrophizes a Greek hero as “Outrageous and egregious Heracles!” Perhaps Heracles is etymologically egregious—he stands out from the herd—but it is a word not normally applied to human beings. Fagles oddly transforms an adjective into a noun and calls the hero “that breakneck Heracles,” while Lattimore chooses “brute, heavy-handed.” Surprisingly perhaps, Pope’s “rash, impious man” still sounds about right. In one final example from Book 16, Hades, the god of death and the underworld, is called “the lord of famous foals.” Perhaps it is to be too literal-minded to wonder, do foals—horses less than a year old—ever become famous? The alliteration may have been irresistible; yet Fagles’ “the famous horseman” or Powell’s “famed for his horses” seem more accurate. The Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon offers the definition “with noble steeds” for the Greek word, klutopōlōs. A foal can only aspire to being a steed.
The Iliad is dominated by scenes embodying the horrors of battle and is rightly considered one of the great poems of war; and if war, or force, is, as Simone Weil proposed, “the very center of human history,” then Homer’s poem is, as she went on to say, “the purest and loveliest of mirrors.”[4] Yet the poem also contains some heart-wrenching scenes that are deeply emotional. Emotion in a sense is at the root of the story, since its subject, as Homer says in the opening lines, is Achilles’ wrath (or anger or rage, according to various translators). But perhaps the most moving scenes, while rooted in war, are not primarily about war but about human feeling more generally. The scenes between Hector and Andromache constitute one such example, and many artists have been drawn to illustrate them. Another equally powerful scene is the meeting of Achilles and Priam in the former’s tent, where Priam has gone to try to recover his son Hector’s body. It all but concludes the poem, and firmly places the theme of war in a profoundly human context. Emily Wilson has translated this scene in her usual straightforward English, and here, it works beautifully to render Priam’s modesty and courage, and (for once!) Achilles’ deep humanity rather than his usual bloodlust. It deserves quoting at length. Here, Priam addresses Achilles:


“Godlike Achilles, think of your own father,
who is as old as I am, standing over
the final threshold between age and death.
The people in the neighboring estates
probably threaten him, and there is no one
to save him from the danger of destruction.
And yet at least he hears you are alive,
and so his heart is glad, and every day
he hopes to see his own beloved son
come home from Troy—while I have been the most
unlucky man alive. In spacious Troy,
I had the finest sons, of whom not one
is left. I once had fifty, in the days
before the Greeks arrived. And from one womb
nineteen were born to me. My household women
bore me the others. Most of them were killed
by furious Ares, who undid their limbs.
I had just one who kept our town and people
safe, and you killed him a short while ago,
while he was fighting for his fatherland—
Hector. I came here to your ships for him,
to ransom him from you. I brought with me
a countless ransom. Please, Achilles, show
reverence towards the gods and pity me,
remembering your father, Peleus.
I am more pitiable than him. I have
endured what no man yet on earth has done—
I pressed my mouth into the hand of him
who killed my son.”


[1] THE ILIAD, by Homer, trans. by Emily Wilson. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $39.95.
[2] Chapman’s Homer: The Iliad; The Odyssey, trans. by George Chapman (Ware, 2000), p. 66.
[3] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, trans. by Richmond Lattimore, illus. by Leonard Baskin (Chicago, 1962), p. 271. These are the opening lines of Book 13.
[4] Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in War and the Iliad, trans. by Mary McCarthy (New York, 2005), p. 3.