Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Iliad, Book 1

Let's all make a pact, a New Year's resolution maybe, to approach the most gigantic classics a little bit at a time. By the chapter, by the "book." I've often grimly determined to do this with lots of things, with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for instance, whose three volumes, I think, could only be managed one paragraph at a time -- but so far I have always lost my nerve. With Gibbon, and with much more. Moby Dick, anyone?  

No more quavering. Let us at least get the rough outlines of the plot of the Iliad clear in our heads, so that we may not continue forever ignorant of a founding book of the Western world. Besides, reading it helps us decipher art.

Book one opens with sickness, and a quarrel over women.The Greek (or we should say, Achaean) army is camped outside the walls of Troy, suffering a plague sent by Apollo because the Achaean king Agamemnon has taken as a prize Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo's priests, and has refused to free her even for a ransom. A seer, speaking under the protection of the great warrior Achilles, reveals this publicly. Agamemnon is furious. He says that to stay the plague, one of the other captains may have the chore of returning the girl to her father, provided he is given a compensatory prize, that is, one of their women. This in turn outrages Achilles, who shouts that the army has already fought Agamemnon's (endless) war and seen him take extra plunder "whenever we sack some wealthy Trojan stronghold." He seems to loathe Agamemnon personally anyway, apart from any grievance. Agamemnon then declares that he will therefore take Briseis, Achilles' woman, and before Achilles can draw a sword on him, the goddess Athena swoops in from heaven and orders him to stop.

Achilles, though he is called a king, must submit to Agamemnon's authority as a greater one ("no one can match the honors dealt a sceptered king"). Nevertheless, he vows that because of this outrage, and the acquiescence of the army witnessing it,  he will not fight with them any more and that the time will come when they will need him desperately but be slaughtered without him. Nestor attemps to make peace between the two men, but cannot. Agamemnon sends two underlings to take Briseis away, while no less a hero than Odysseus respectfully escorts the priest's daughter back to her father. Achilles, weeping with rage on the beach, prays to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to go to Zeus and beg him to harm the Achaeans and to further the Trojan cause. Thetis agrees to try, although she says she can do nothing until Zeus returns from a twelve day feast "at the Ocean River with the Aethiopians, loyal, lordly men."

In twelve days, while Achilles "grinds his heart out" for sorrow at losing Briseis, Thetis goes to Olympus to plead with Zeus. He reluctantly agrees to help "pay her dear son back" for his lost honors, reluctantly because his wife Hera already thinks he favors the Trojans too much over the Achaeans whom she loves. "Even now in the face of all the immortal gods she harries me perpetually," he complains. Thetis, having won his assent, dives back to her ocean home. Hera indeed immediately understands what has just happened, but Zeus tells her she cannot do anything about his decisions and silences her with threats to strangle her. She and all the gods are terrified; her son Hephaestus comes to her with a cup of wine and asks her to remember Zeus' power and have patience, or else all the joys of Olympus will be over. The book ends with laughter, music and feasting in heaven, and then with the picture of all the gods returning to their own houses, and of Zeus and Hera in bed.

(This translation of the Iliad is by Robert Fagles, first published in 1990.)

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