A. E. Stallings

The greatest anti-war poem of all

Will Caroline Alexander’s translation of the Iliad — the first in English by a woman — prove the definitive one?

The Iliad begins with a grudge and ends with a funeral. In between are passages, if not necessarily of boredom, to alter the war adage, of lists, pathos, sex, humour, fairytale strangeness (golden fembots, a talking horse) and lyric images, punctuated by moments of pure terror (eyes popped out of heads, a spear throbbing in a beating heart, a man cradling his intestines in his hands). With several new translations in the past year alone, as well as a film in 2004, and recent novels (David Malouf’s Ransom), dramatisations, and book-length poems (War Music by Christopher Logue and Memorial by Alice Oswald), we are clearly, in our era of seemingly perpetual war, in an age of Iliads.

One of those recent books was Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Fall of Troy (2009), a close reading-cum-
retelling. Her argument is that the poem is deeply anti-war: Achilles considers the expedition against Troy pointless — he has nothing against the Trojans, and is openly at odds with the army’s literally bloody-minded commander, Agamemnon.

The tragedy is that he will fight and, just beyond the events of the poem, die anyway. Throughout the book, Alexander quotes from Richard Lattimore’s 1951 translation, with the exception of Book 22 (or Book Chi in the Greek, the 24 chapters of the Iliad being named after the letters of the Greek alphabet), which recounts the slaying of the most sympathetic character, the Trojan prince, Hector; this she translated herself. She explains, humbly:

The translation was not made because it was felt that Lattimore’s work could be improved upon, but because this Book is too perfect to be fragmented by commentary, and it seemed an impertinence to lift an entire chapter of another scholar’s work.

As this new Iliad demonstrates, Alexander has evidently had a change of heart, but translation tends to be addictive.

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