by Triunfo Arciniegas
Embarking on an epic: Homer's Iliad for February's Reading group
The motherlode of western literature has kept readers and translators busy for 3,000 years. Now it’s our turn
Tuesday 2 February 2016 10.00 GMT
This month on the Reading group – deep breath – we’re going for the big one: the Iliad. The ur-text of the western canon. The beginning of everything.
If you’ve read Homer’s epic poem, you’ll have a good idea about why it’s been the bedrock of our literary tradition for so long. But if you haven’t, be prepared to be surprised.
While it’s possible to argue that no book has been more influential, and that all western writing since 800BCE has somehow borne the Iliad’s imprint, it’s also difficult to think of any book quite like it.
The Iliad is strange from the very first lines about dogs and birds feasting on the bodies of dead heroes – and remains so until the funeral rites at the close. This poem is confusing, frustrating, psychologically alien, brutal and unsettling. No one said the western literary tradition was all smiles and flowers.
Fortunately, the Iliad is also alluring, beautiful and astonishing. Even across that huge gulf of time, through the clamour of different translations and the white noise of cultural expectations, Homer’s voice speaks loud. That’s reason enough to take a look at the book on the Reading group – but we’ve also been spurred into action by the fact that Vintage is releasing an impressive new translation by Caroline Alexander. What’s amazing is that the publisher claims she’s the first woman to translate the Iliad into English. After almost 3,000 years. And hundreds of other attempts.
Caroline Alexander will be joining us for a Q&A on 29 February and we’ll be able to ask her about that strange fact, and more. In the meantime, there’s a slight catch in that her new version isn’t published until 25 February, strictly speaking. But we can make a virtue of this absence. In a departure from usual practice, I thought it might be an interesting experiment if we all chose our own translation, compared notes, and tried to see through to the essentials of the story.
If you’re interested in the intricacies, I’ve got the new one beside me, as well as the battered copy of EV Rieu that helped me struggle when I studied classics at university, and an audiobook of the Robert Fitzgerald translation. I’ll also refer tothe very useful Perseus catalogue.
Double-plus points to anyone reading in Homeric Greek (although that’s not by any means necessary – any way of making a connection with Homer is valid). This near-mythical figure, barely visible through the mists of time, sitting in a room shadowy and flickering in torchlight, somewhere near a wine dark sea, possibly plucking a harp, possibly singing, certainly spinning out a yarn that would change the way we think about everything…
More on him (or them?) next week. Until then, thoughts, suggestions for topics to discuss, initial impressions and long-held knowledge will all be much appreciated as usual.