Homer; Robert Fagels, trans., 1990
This is the grand epic of all time. As Coleman Silk in The Human Stain puts it, The Iliad is the beginning of all European literature.
The Iliad is the story the Greek invasion of Ilion (Troy) in what is now Turkey. The reason for the invasion: to reclaim the wife of Sparta's King Menelaus, Helen, the beauty who ran off with Paris, prince of Troy (she whose face launched 1,000 ships). The Iliad represents only about a small portion of the 10-year-long war, but many of the most famous heroes take part: Odysseus, Ajax, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, and Paris himself.
And then there are the gods, sitting high on Olympus, taking sides in the human drama below and intervening behind Zeus's back on behalf of their favorite heroes. They squabble, insult one another, seduce and trick one another...and generally behave like a band of juvenile delinquents. It's "high" comic relief from the human savagery taking place on the ground below.
The Iliad does not glorify war; over and over Homer points out its horrific cost—and Achilles, the greatest of warriors, questions its very meaning. What the epic does is to glorify the men and women caught up in the conflagration—their bravery, loyalty to comrades, their sorrow and despair, all in face of war's brutality.
So...how to approach this work? Split it up into 2 or 3 sessions. Then find an English or classics professor to work with you, to point out the on-going motifs, themes, philosophical underpinnngs, and cultural traditions. It's not hard...there's so much within its pages... and it's so powerful.
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