Mention Homer now and most people will picture yellow, rather than bronze. But Homer Simpson’s comic status as a modern anti hero only makes sense with a knowledge, however vague, of the heroes in The Iliad and The Odyssey.
They underpin the last three thousand years of western culture. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and Helen… these are the chess pieces that poets, painters and sculptors have been playing with ever since. Odysseus, the Trickster, is there at the dawn of classical literature – and then again, Romanised as Ulysses, at the dawn of Modernism. What a gift. Trust the Greeks.
Still, there is a reason no-one reads them anymore – at least, not for fun. It isn’t just our tragically withered attention spans, our preference for three minute rap videos over ten hour epic sagas. These books are really hard. They are not like Game of Thrones. They were already old when Homer first set them down, and at times they show their age.
They frustrate. Adapting the 'Dactylic Hexameter' in which they were originally sung, is the least of the translator’s worries. The Iliad – which many assume will be 'about’ the Trojan War – turns out to be just one episode in what was originally at least a six parter – and is not even the series climax. It ends with Troy still emphatically unsacked.
How do you translate the juvenile tantrums of supposedly heroic warriors? The endless, partisan interference from squabbling gods? And how do you make palatable the endlessly repeated honorifics, the meandering, wayward narrative, the frankly superfluous biographical detail?
True, the Odyssey is easier, and has some episodes that are familiar from schooldays – the Cyclops, the Sirens, and, confusingly, the Trojan Horse, which makes no appearance in The Iliad at all. But it is still several hours in, before Odysseus himself arrives, and all his most famous adventures are recounted in flashback, once he’s well out of danger. The last third of the book is a slow build up to a Godfather style orgy of violent revenge fantasy and re-assertion of sovereignty to rival Brexit.
It is no wonder that many turn instead to modern fantasy and fan-fic for a gleam of bronze armour, sun-kissed thigh and perfect pecs.
And yet, for anyone who cares about culture, this is a big bit of bed post to leave un-notched. And more to the point, persist, and there are gleaming jewels and crimson tides in amongst the thickets, beyond anything George RR Martin could dream up, or thieve.
Audiobooks are your friend. You can snooze through the lists of ships and snap back to it when the narrator’s tone lets you know that a good bit is starting now.
I listened to The Great Courses first. Highly recommended: these lectures gave me a way in, and some kind of purchase on the material. I then listened to three readings of the Iliad. EV Rieu’s translation, which some seventy odd years ago launched Penguin classics, now seems a little dry, the narrator a little too urgent, hoarse. I preferred WHD Rouse, read by Anthony Heald. But Charlton Griffin’s rendering of Richmond Lattimore’s text was the best. As a reader, Griffin has some experience of martial matters. He first came to my attention reading Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel – a first world war memoir that probably displays as close as anything written in the last century, to the Bronze Age understanding of war. This was my favourite.
But I can’t help feeling the definitive Iliad remains elusive. Robert Fagle’s highly regarded translation is unread, so far – and I would like to suggest the inimitable Simon Callow have a crack at it, with all haste.
As to The Odyssey – no contest. Ian McKellan, reading Fagle’s transcription is unrivalled. It’s an older recording but a peerless evocation of the tale itself, the actor drawing on his full range to illuminate every wave and crag, every human artifice and meddling deity, in the oldest seafaring yarn to survive. Just wonderful. This is what Homer deserves, dammit, and I am not going to clutter up this paragraph with backstop options.
If however you worry that the full unmediated Homer has defeated you in the past for a reason – you will be delighted to know that Stephen Fry’s Troy delivers on all its promise, and then some. In audio book form it is, for a Bronze Age tale, an unalloyed delight. The poetry, the embroidery, the action is all there, the back story and aftermath are expanded to broaden out the Iliad’s notoriously narrow focus, and a few confusing details and frankly bemusing subplots in the original are discretely allowed to fall away. What remains is all the Troy most of us will ever want or need.
It would be very easy, frankly, to resent Fry his super-abundance of gifts, but that would demand that you deny yourself enjoyment of them. So, what are you waiting for? Dive into the wine dark sea of myth, and prepare to be gloriously drowned.
And, at the very least, you will finally understand what Marge saw in the old man.