Tag Archives: The Iliad

The Rush of Wonder: George Steiner on The Iliad

I was emotionally stirred when reading George Steiner’s beautiful second chapter in his book Errata in which he describes his initial experience with reading and translating Homer as a six-year-old boy: “My father, in broad strokes, had told me the story of the Iliad.  He had kept the book itself out of my impatient reach.  Now he opened it before us in the translation by Johann-Heinrich Voss of 1793.  Papa turned to Book XXI.”  Steiner’s father goes on to read Homer’s account of Achilles’s murderous fury and his killing of the Trojan youth Lycaon who begs for his life in vain.

Steiner’s father then opens the passage in Ancient Greek and as a very young boy he gets his first taste of the language:

My father read the Greek several times over.  He made me mouth the syllables after him.  Dictionary and grammar flew open.  Like the lineaments of a brightly colored mosaic lying under sand, when you pour water on it, the words, the formulaic phrases, took on form and meaning for me.  Word by sung word, verse by verse.  I recall graphically the rush of wonder, of a child’s consciousness troubled and uncertainly ripened, by the word “friend” in the  midst of the death-sentence: “Come friend, you too must die.”  And by the enormity, so far as I could gauge it, of the question: “Why  moan about it so?”  Very slowly, allowing me his treasured Waterman pen, my father let me trace some of the Greek letters and accents.

…Papa made a further proposal, as in passing: “Shall we learn some lines from this episode by heart?”  So that the serene inhumanity of Achilles’  message, its soft terror, would never leave us.  Who could tell, moreover, what I might find on my night-table when going back to my room?  I raced.  And found my first Homer.  Perhaps the rest has been a footnote to that hour.

Steiner further discusses what effect classic works like those of Homer, Tolstoy and Dante have on us.  He ends the chapter with this personal reflection: “Exposure, from early childhood, to these ordinances of excellence, the desire to share with others the answerability and transmission in time without which the classic falls silent, made of me exactly what my father intended: a teacher.”


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction

Excellence and Honor in Logue’s War Music

Achilles and Agamemnon, Book 1 of The Iliad, Roman Mosaic

I continue my discussion in this post of Logue’s War Music by focusing on the Homeric Greek concepts of arête (excellence) and tîmê (honour).  For those who are interested, I have discussed in previous posts the ideas of kleos and aidos and how Logue deftly weaves these concepts into his startling translation of the Iliad.

When the Greeks land on the beach at Troy, they are really fighting two different wars: one against the Trojans and one amongst themselves.  The heroic code that is established in this warrior culture ensures that there is constant conflict and fighting among the soldiers themselves.  It is not surprising that Agamemnon and Achilles have a fight over prizes; what is surprising is that it took nine years for this argument to finally erupt.  They each strictly adhere to the values of arête (excellence) and  tîmê (honor), but their different applications of these concepts to their own circumstances causes a great deal of conflict, misunderstanding and arguing.

The Greek word arête, which comes from the superlative adjective aristos (the best), can simply be translated as “excellence.” H.D.F.  Kitto includes a thorough discussion of arête is his book The Greeks.  He points out that arête can be used to denote the excellence of the entire man, body and soul.  He states:

If it [arête] is used, in a general contest, of a man it will connote excellence in the ways in which a man can be excellent—morally, intellectually, physically, practically.  Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phaeacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.

Kitto points out that Achilles is the hero who possesses this all-around type of excellence in the Iliad.  But arête can also be applied to more limited contexts as well.  Achilles, for example, places an emphasis and importance on his arête as a warrior, as a fighter, as the best fighter among the Achaeans.  He knows that the Greeks will not be successful without him and he is the reason they have sacked and looted many cities around the Troad.  It is this second example, this more specific application of arête, excellence on the battlefield, upon which Logue builds the conflict in his first book of War Music.  In his typical, forceful, succinct and shocking style Logue’s Achilles sums up the Greek’s modus operandi: “We land. We fight. We kill.  We load.”   And Achilles reminds Agamemnon of his prowess in battle: “Since I arrived, my Lord,/ I have sent 20 lesser Ilion towns/Backwards into the smoke.”  He further reminds Agamemnon that Briseis, a beautiful woman whose husband Achilles destroyed, is given to him by the Greek warriors as a prize “In recognition of my strength, my courage my superiority.”  Achilles views Briseis as a prize, a special reward for his arête in battle.  So when Agamemnon takes away Briseis in order to make up for his own, lost prize, Achilles sees this as an insult to his work and his arête.  Logue highlights the fact that Agamemnon can’t understand Achilles’ argument over the prize because the king views arête very differently.

Agamemon’s focus is not arête on the battlefield, but instead he places importance on arête as a king and leader.  Logue’s Agamemnon states: “As being first means being privileged,/ So privilege incurs responsibility./ And my responsibility is plain:/To keep the army whole. To see it hale./To lead it through Troy’s Skean Gate.”  Agamemnon’s arête, his excellence, depends on his status as king and ruler of the Greeks and this status, he feels, is tied directly to any prizes the Greek army retrieves from pillaged towns.  As leader he has first choice of the best prizes and when he is forced to give up his most valued prize, Cryzia, then he feels it is his right to take someone else’s “she” as recompense: “What does it matter whose prize she I take?/ But take I shall, and if needs be, by force.”  Logue has perfectly captured Agamemnon’s concept of arête with these forceful words.  Logue is intimately familiar with the intricacies of Homeric culture and underscores the fact that Achilles and Agamemnon cannot understand or even relate to one another’s arguments over Briseis since they each value very different forms of arête.

As Achilles and Agamemnon are arguing, they each make it a point of accusing the other of having no tîmê (honour) .  The Homeric idea of tîmê is tightly bound to a hero’s arête.  Through arête in battle Achilles gains a prize, Briseis, which becomes a symbol of tîmê for him.  When Achilles is stripped of this prize,  his tîmê  is also threatened.   Agamemnon, on the other hand, equates tîmê with the respect that should be shown to a king.  To be forced to give up his prize and not have another in its place is damaging to Agamemnon’s  tîmê: “..as the loss of an allotted she/Diminishes my honour and my state,/ Before the army leaves the common sand/Its captain lords will find among their own/Another such for me.”

Neither hero can relate to or see the other’s side because they each view arête differently and as a result gain tîmê by very different means. Logue perfectly captures the misunderstanding between these men, especially through the insults that he has them launch at one another.  Achilles accuses Agamemnon of having no tîmê and he knows what to say that will be the most offensive and insulting to the king:

“Shame that your King is not so  bound to you
As he is bound to what he sniffs.

Here is the truth:
King Agamemnon is not honour bound.
Honour to Agamemnon is a thing
That he can pick, pick up, put back, pick up again,
A somesuch that you might find beneath your bed.

Do not tell Agamemnon honour is
No mortal thing, but ever in creation,
Vital, free, like speed, like light,
Like silence, like the gods,
The movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!
Dividing man from beast, hero from host,
That proves best, best, that only death can reach,
Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,
now, and in time to be, for evermore.”

What I find so brilliant about Logue’s “translation” is that in this one, succinct speech his Achilles explains the specific meaning of Homeric tîmê as something that has religious significance and is something that lives on when a hero dies.   As I stated in my first post, I found it unsettling that Logue was not trained in Ancient Greek nor was he interested in a line by line translation of the Iliad.  He does, however, capture the true essence of these Homeric heroes as well as their mores and traditions with his startling, compact, unexpected and poetic lines.  The Iliad is a war poem and it should be jarring—Logue’s rendition of this epic has reminded me of this and has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for Homer which I never thought would be possible since I have read it in Ancient Greek and English so many times.


Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation

Review: Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature from Ancient Greece. So I was thrilled when I received an advanced copy from the author of The Hand of Fire, a novel set during the Trojan War.

My Review:
perf6.000x9.000.inddIn Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, the best of the Greek warriors, has taken as one of his prizes the woman Briseis.  Briseis is captured from the city of Lyrnessos which Achilles and the Myrmidons raided in their search for prizes, livestock and anything else to help sustain their war effort.  The character of Briseis in the Iliad says very few words.  But what would it have been like to be a princess of a prosperous Bronze Age city and then taken captive by a Greek warrior?  How was Briseis treated by Achilles and did she actually love him?  These are the questions that Judith Starkston attempts to answer in her new novel Hand of Fire.

When Hand of Fire begins, Lyrnessos is a thriving city and Briseis has been raised by her mother to be a priestess and a healer who will serve her people.  She is betrothed to the prince of Lyrnessos and she will someday become the city’s queen.  The aspect of the novel that impressed me the most is the amount of research that the author did pertaining to Bronze Age homes, religious customs, and society.  I have read the Iliad countless times, and I have even translated it in from the original Ancient Greek.  Hand of Fire let me see the world of the Trojan War in a way in which I had never fully imagined. Continue reading


Filed under Historical Fiction