Review date: November 15, 2022 — 10 min read
The story of the Trojan War, along with the associated characters is arguably one of the most famous tales of all time.
I'm not confident most of us know the full details of the story but I am pretty confident if you ask people if they're vaguely familiar with the story of a war involving a certain Helen of Troy and some wooden horse, their answer will be yes.
Anyway, for such a well-known story I found myself discontent with only vaguely knowing what it's all about. More importantly though, the more I thought about it the more apparent it became how little I knew about the utility of wooden horses during wartime. It wasn't long before eczema spread to my curiosity and it began to itch.
Intrigued, after a bit of Googling, I discovered some chap named Homer* had written about the Trojan War in his poem, the Iliad. I also learnt he had written what seemed to be a sequel to the Iliad, the Odyssey.
So, I set myself a goal to read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and satisfy my need for a better understanding and knowledge of the Trojan War (and wooden horses at wartime). However, I quickly learnt it wouldn't be that easy. For starters, to my utter shock and dismay, I learnt English was not the lingua franca of ancient Greece and surrounds.
When I finally came round after this unbelievable shock, I did some research into some of the popular translations out there. It was during these escapades that I stumbled across the fantastic site "Read The Great Books". On it I found a number of recommended translations for both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Regrettably, they offered up no recommended translations focused specifically on the effectiveness and utility of wooden horses during wartime. With this ungovernable derision unlikely to change any time soon, I settled on the Robert Fagles' translations- recommended by them for those looking for a more gentle introduction to Homer and his epic poetry.
With that I set off into the Homeric world of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
*There is a lot of debate (and a lack of consensus) around Homer like whether he is just one person, how the poems recorded stored over the centuries and so on. Robert Fagles goes into this in his translations of the Iliad and The Odyssey. I won't be touching on it here.
My knowledge of poetry vs prose, meters, rhythmic schemes and so on is alarmingly limited. When reading Homer's works I relied heavily on Robert Fagles translation and notes to guide my understanding (Rober Fagles adapted from dactylic hexameter to a more palatable/friendly form).
First and foremost, it's worth noting that my knowledge of Greek Mythology was completely overhauled upon finishing the Iliad and the Odyssey.
I finished the Iliad first (as it is the 'first' poem in the series) and found myself in an unusual state of awe. Not because the writing was of preternatural colour and imagery. No, it was because I was taken aback by just how human it was. The Iliad, barring a few quirks, felt like it could have been written by a contemporary author. Yes, the fact that I was reading a modern translation had some impact on this, but the themes, motifs, struggles/challenges are ones present in the world we live in.
The realisation that thousands of years ago, our predecessors were grappling with the very same issues we do, was a jarring eye opener. Up until reading the Iliad I just assumed our 'ancestors' from classical antiquity were pretty clueless and extremely primitive. This new realisation, coupled with the mind-blowing fact that what I was reading something that was somehow preserved over thousands of years, really left a mark on me. I suspect anyone who does delve into the world of Homer and Epic Greek poetry will probably experience the same feelings and sensations.
Sidebar: if you prescribe to the Lindy effect/Lindy's law as a measure of value, then you ought read Homer's epics.
This contains spoilers.
Menelaus, the Spartan king is angry. His wife, Helen (who), has been taken from him by the goddess Aphrodite and given to the Trojan prince, Paris (for reasons I won't go into).
Fun fact: the Latinised name for Troy is Ilium and that's where the name "the Iliad" stems from.
So, being the sensible man he is, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon raise a gigantic army (the Achaeans) to attack Troy and retrieve Helen (now situated in the kingdom of Troy, hence Helen of Troy). The war (which, by the way, goes on for approximately a DECADE), its ebb and flow, is the primary focus on the Iliad. As the war wages, we are introduced to various characters.
On the Achaean side we meet a number of characters such as: Achilles (the one with the heel - an untouchable warrior and son of a sea nymph), Odysseus (a mastermind tactician) and Ajax (there are two, one is great and the other is meh).
On the Trojan side some notable people are Paris (a Trojan prince and jerk, played by Orlando Bloom in the movie Troy), Priam (the king of Troy) and Hector (Paris' brother, also a prince but not a jerk).
And that's really about it. the Iliad is the telling of the war between these two sides, the gods and their involvement, and the quest to rescue Helen from Paris.
I found the Iliad to be an surprisingly graphic and gory adventure. I did not expect the amount detail it goes into regarding how soldiers are killed and mutilated. That said, weaved into this gruesome and macabre tale are traces of very real human emotions and fears. Behind the blood and slaughter we catch glimpses of our fragile human nature. We see flaws and vulnerability in the soldiers that is just so human. It was these brief flutters of humanity that reinforced the fact that our fears, emotions, gripes and so on are not unique to our era but have been around for centuries. Moreover, there is wisdom to be gleaned from the struggles revealed throughout the poem.
But, I will say I feel the Iliad is a repetitive slow burner and, rather unlike the Odyssey, is riddled with frustrating deus ex machina interventions in the form of the Greek gods and their antics. I also found there were long winded sections, either focused on the glory of battle or old traditions that I couldn't fully appreciate. Of course, a few thousand years ago I'm sure these sections were lapped up.
Nonetheless, even with these issues, I enjoyed the Iliad. I'm glad I took the time to read it and would suggest others do the same. It is my strong belief that if you take your time wading through the Iliad, you'll come out wiser and with an enriched perspective of our place in the world.
This contains spoilers.
So, the Trojan War has to end at some point right? Well it does and as you can imagine that when a war ends the various armies need to head back home. Typically this is not something one would pay much attention to, not unless your journey home takes 10 YEARS. For poor old Odysseus (part of the Achaean army), this was the case.
Can you just imagine? The poor man, having just survived a ghastly 10 year long war now has to spend 10 MORE years trying to get home.
Fun fact: the word 'odyssey' (journey) as we know it today originates from the Greek word Odusseia which roughly translates to the story of Odysseus
His boat ride from Troy to his home town where he rules, Ithaca, is disrupted by Poseidon who sends him off course basically out of spite. Amongst other things, Odysseus:
To some that might sound like a hoot, but take my word for it: it is not. The journey is tough, unforgiving, unrelenting and liberal in its cruelty.
Oh yes- and while this is all happening, back in Ithaca a bunch of men (suitors) are vying for his wife's hand in marriage. Oh and everyone thinks Odysseus is dead. It's pretty brutal.
If you haven't figured it out yet, in the Odyssey Homer tells us about Odysseus' epic quest home.
I really enjoyed the Odyssey, genuinely. Whilst I found the Iliad ok, I found the Odyssey significantly more gripping and I was engrossed throughout.
In summary, I enjoyed the epic journey/journeys Homer took me on.
If you are determined and interested in Greek Mythology or just want to seem smart at parties, I would recommend reading both books. They might feel like a slog at times, but to me it was completely worth persisting. If you are new to world of ancient Greek epic poetry, I would suggest Robert Fagles' translation. From what I understand, there is a lot to be learnt from a 2nd reading or from other translations but I have yet to get there.
I plan on reading some of the other books mentioned on "Read The Great Books", which I'll write about here.
Don't worry, I didn't forget. I'm aware that there a few loose ends I need to tie up from the start of this post.
If you are currently standing up (?), I would strongly suggest you take a seat.
There is no wooden horse at all in the Iliad. That's not to say there was no wooden horse in the Trojan war, just that they are not mentioned in the Iliad. This injustice is somewhat ameliorated in the Odyssey where it is briefly mentioned. It turns out the full story behind the wooden horse is barely touched on at all by Homer. In fact, if you want to learn about it you'll have to look to Virgil's Aeneid.
By now you should be sitting but if you are some sort of rebel, I would implore you to cast aside your pernicious behaviour and take a seat.
Trauma: there is NO mention of Achilles' heel being his weakness in the Iliad. Nothing. It too, is explored in the Aeneid.
Guess I'll have to read the Aeneid soon!