JUNE 7, 2012
The Iliad of Homer
Translated by Richmond Lattimore
(University of Chicago Press, 599 pp., $15)
Homer: The Iliad
Translated by Anthony Verity
(Oxford University Press, 470 pp., $29.95)
Homer: The Iliad
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
(Free Press, 466 pp., $35)
Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad
By Alice Oswald
(Faber & Faber, 84 pp., £12.99)
The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller
(Ecco, 378 pp., $25.99)
English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History
By Stuart Gillespie
(Wiley-Blackwell, 208 pp., $110.95)
"Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’s son Achilleus/and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians.” It is over sixty years now since Richmond Lattimore first published his groundbreaking translation of Homer’s The Iliad. What distinguished his version from just about all its predecessors, starting with George Chapman in the sixteenth century, was that it consciously and deliberately set out to produce a text calculated to give readers with no knowledge of Greek as accurate a picture as English could convey of the Homeric original. Lattimore’s program included meter, rhythm, style, formulaic phrases, vocabulary, and those qualities famously isolated by Matthew Arnold in his lectures On Translating Homer: rapidity, plainness of thought, directness of expression, and a nobility of concept that could rise, without losing its simplicity, to the grand manner. The occasion that produced such an English Iliad was, of course, the huge expansion of American university education in the humanities, largely fostered by the GI Bill in the years immediately following World War II.
Arguments over Homeric translation are nothing new. Virtually since the Renaissance, there has been a clear division among translators between modernists and Hellenizers. The first, in essence, follow the principle enunciated by Dryden: that were the ancient poet now living, and an Englishman, the version of him they produced would be such as the poet himself would probably have written—a formula that, of course, gave carte blanche for any anglicization, however bizarre. The Hellenizers, by contrast, aim to preserve, as far as possible, the original characteristics of the Greek, and are often thought of as upholding the cause of those whom Arnold termed the “unlearned,” meaning primarily those incapable of reading Homer in the original.
Nothing in fact could be further from the truth than this latter supposition. It has not been only the Drydenists who assumed that their readers were themselves familiar with the original Greek texts, and could competently offer criticism of each new version; the Hellenizers did exactly the same, and looked, no less than their rivals, for knowledgeable criticism and appreciation. The enlightenment of the Greekless concerned them not at all: what mattered were the Anglo-American poetic fashions of the day. It was indeed true that between the two world wars a taste for vers libre made it look as though translators were at last moving in on the alien structure of a Sophoclean chorus or a Pindaric ode, but this was merely coincidental.
The postwar development of the humanities at the college level led to a noticeable degree of contempt among conservative academics for what novelties such as Lattimore’s Iliad were setting out to achieve. Old-school classicists, secure in their familiarity with Homeric Greek, regarded the whole idea as unnecessary and a dilution of proper scholarly standards, like general courses in classical civilization that relied on translated texts. When, in 1976, Malcolm Willcock produced a Companion to The Iliad based on Lattimore, elderly heads were shaken at this symptom of decline. Nor did the Greekless get any help from that avant-gardeclassical autodidact Donald Carne-Ross, who was fond of saying that what they should do was get off their butts and learn Greek: three months should suffice to let them at least read Homer by construal (this claim had more than the old fogeys shaking their heads), and having bypassed the need for the kind of help that Lattimore offered, they could move on to serious theories of translation. Carne-Ross wanted free scope, in English literary terms, for the development of creative versions, and his relentless dismissal of Lattimore’s work—in particular in an essay on his Odyssey, significantly titled “A Mistaken Ambition of Exactness”—has been one of the main reasons for the decline in Lattimore’s reputation in recent years.
Yet the professors in English departments who benefited from the new trend found Lattimore a godsend. Since their own grasp of classical languages seldom exceeded, or even reached, Shakespeare’s, Lattimore’s careful avoidance of modern decoration meant that they were not liable, all unknowing, to criticize as Homeric a trope that originated in the mind of the translator. But they were also eager, understandably, to present Homer, Virgil, and the tragedians as part and parcel of English literary history. Thus, for them, the famous versions of Chapman and Pope, far from failing (as Matthew Arnold argued) by recreating Homer in Elizabethan or Augustan dress, played an admirable role, for that very reason, in mediating their author for the English tradition. Stuart Gillespie’s chapter on “Classical Translation and the Formation of the English Literary Canon” in English Translation and Classical Reception is fascinating in this regard. Unconcerned with evaluating Homer tout court, and even less with helping the Greekless to see him plain, such academics have acclimatized a paradox that I first came across as a joke (“the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare”) in one of David Lodge’s novels, so that Gillespie, quite seriously, can invite us to consider “Shakespeare’s influence on Plutarch.” Such speculation, as Gillespie admits, “has a heady attraction,” though outside the classic-English-translation-as-original scene it rapidly loses its traction.
FORTUNATELY, THE survival of Lattimore’s remarkable tour de forcehas not depended on the say-so of captious literary critics. Despite the rival offerings of Robert Fitzgerald (much touted by Carne-Ross), Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo, there are still many students who have come to Homer by way of Lattimore, and not a few of these have been inspired by his version to learn Greek and reach out to the full richness of the original. Proof of his Iliad’s enduring value is the excellent new edition “designed,” as the blurb proclaims, “to bring the book into the twenty-first century,” with up-to-date bibliography, maps, an onomastic glossary, explanatory running notes on background and critical trends, and, perhaps most important, a clear and comprehensive survey by Richard Martin of the very considerable advances in Homeric scholarship achieved since the original appearance of Lattimore’s Iliad in 1951.
In sixty-four closely packed pages, Martin updates readers on new evidence for Troy and the Trojan War—the accumulating likelihood of their historicity has surely sharpened our fascination with Homer’s version—together with the saga associated with it, the unique vision of The Iliad and its world, the current state of the perennial “Homeric Questions,” the nature of Homeric style, and changes in reception and translation. It is difficult to see how this introduction could be improved, and those who read it with care before embarking on the translation that follows will enjoy a constantly enhanced understanding and appreciation of Homer’s epic.
Just how influential a model Lattimore has proved becomes evident on every page of two more recently published translations of The Iliad. It ishard to imagine how Anthony Verity or Stephen Mitchell would have gone about their task had Lattimore not blazed the trail that they so clearly follow. Both these translators—Verity more closely than Mitchell—have adopted something very like Lattimore’s loose quasi-hexametrical line, with its varying (average five) number of stresses. Verity also keeps carefully to Homeric line-numeration, a wonderful rule against splurging, as readers of the version by Fagles, who ignored the rule, know to their cost. He also preserves those formulaic epithets—cloud-gathering Zeus, bronze-clad Achaeans, swift hounds—that irritate some modern translators, including Mitchell. They cannot abide anything irrational (Apollo’s plague kills all the hounds, not just swift ones; swift-footed Achilles spends most of the time sulking in his tent) or, worse, anything un-English. But it is worth recalling that the poem does not give Odysseus’s epithets to Achilles, or Achilles’s to Odysseus; and also that the occasional jolting contrast between a character’s epithet and his behavior may be quite deliberate. These labels are more than merely formulaic. To omit them diminishes the text.
Mitchell, though he knows Greek, is a professional translator—most notably of Rilke—rather than a classicist. This may explain why he has fallen unconditionally in love with the Homeric theories of the All Souls classical guru Martin West, not bothered one bit by the fact that they are, to put it mildly, contentious. For West, Homer was neither two bards nor a string of rhapsodes: he was a single brilliant poet, who took what he needed from the tale of Troy and stamped it with his unique creative personality—thus creating an Ur-text of The Iliad which, West believes, is theoretically recoverable. This Iliad does not include what he, along with some ancient critics, regards as late inferior insertions—in particular Book Ten, the nocturnal killing of the Trojan spy Dolon, and the capture of Rhesus’s famous Thracian horses, by Odysseus and Diomedes. So out goes Book Ten in toto, for West, and for Mitchell, too: this is the first translation I know of that goes straight from Book Nine to Book Eleven. This is by far the biggest excision in West’s text (which Mitchell uses), but it is by no means the only one.
Thus Mitchell (quite apart from the quality of his translation) is guaranteed to annoy more knowledgeable readers than he satisfies. These, he may be surprised to learn, are liable to include some who have considerable sympathy with West’s position. No one familiar with what survives of other epic poets, for starters, is likely to deny Homer’s vast superiority to all of them, and thus at least the possibility of a single creative mind at work. But a possibility, at best, is what we are faced with. As for Book Ten, it is surely no accident that Book Nine closes with Odysseus’s report of Achilles’s obstinate refusal to return to the fray, followed by Diomedes’s contemptuous comments on such grandstanding. The successful commando raid that the two of them carry out that very night offers a clear alternative to the self-obsessed honor code and individual battlefield heroics that form the traditional mode of fighting an Achaean war—and have already dragged the present one out for almost ten years. Note that when they get back to camp with Rhesus’s Thracian horses, old-fashioned Nestor’s instant assumption is that the latter were either publicly battled for or the gift of a god. Thus Book Ten fits well into the story, and enhances its meanings, even if its removal, as claimed, leaves no noticeable gap in the narrative.
Again, this interpretation of Book Ten is no more than a possibility. It could imply either a strong sense of irony in West’s master poet (Odysseus may have beaten Thersites for his anti-heroic realism in Book Two, but here he is behaving in a decidedly Thersitean way himself), or (as West would prefer) an insertion by a later realist, more familiar with the value of night-raid tactics and less enamored of the traditional glories of formal single combat. I suspect I will not be the only reader to be annoyed by having my mind made up for me in advance by the translator, especially when the ongoing debate remains so hard-fought. Surely the translator’s business is to use the traditional text without excisions (though with a warning about the doubts expressed in antiquity regarding Book Ten), and let the reader make up his or her own mind.
AS TRANSLATIONS, how well do these new versions succeed, and to what extent do they justify their existence by improving on Lattimore? In particular, how do they manage meter and rhythm? Verity tells us that his version “does not claim to be poetry”—not the best way, surely, of promoting a great poem—and in fact much of it hardly qualifies as verse. It reads in parts more like ordinary English prose chopped up to maintain line-equivalence: Andromache’s famous closing funeral lament over Hector, as rendered by Verity, offers a striking example of this.
Mitchell quotes the advice that Ezra Pound once gave an aspiring translator of The Iliad: “Nobody will give a damn about the meter if there is flow.” What produced that flow in Homer’s hexameters were his driving dah-didi dactyls (one long syllable followed by two shorts). Mitchell’s “minimally iambic five-beat line” has didi-dah anapests (two short syllables followed by one long) and extra syllables thrown in for variety in the search for equivalence, but di-dah iambs (one short syllable followed by one long), notoriously, climb rather than flowing or driving, while anapaests are incurably jaunty: Aristophanes loved them. “My intention throughout,” Mitchell says, “has been to recreate the ancient epic as a contemporary poem in the parallel universe of the English language.” In short, he is a Drydenist.
Admittedly, the hexameter presents more seemingly insuperable problems to an Anglophone translator than any other classical meter. Since accentual English has no fixed vowel quantities, it is impossible to reproduce the subtle counterpoint between natural stress and metrical schema, so that English hexameters tend to be flat and repetitive. Worse, the Greek dactyl carries a strong firstsyllable emphasis, something that basically iambic English finds very hard to reproduce over the long haul.
C.S. Calverley, a skillful and classically trained Victorian versifier who was well aware of these problems, took a shot at doing The Iliad in hexameters, but gave up, understandably, less than halfway through Book One. It is interesting to compare his version with those of Lattimore and his successors. Here is Apollo’s famous descent on the Greek camp, stirred to wrath by the plea of Chryses the priest, in Calverley’s version:
So did he pray, and his prayer reached
the ears of Phoebus Apollo.
Dark was the soul of the god as he
moved from the heights of Olympus,
Shouldering a bow, and a quiver on this
side fast and on that side.
Onward in anger he moved. And the
arrows, stirred by the motion,
Rattled and rang on his shoulder:
he came, as cometh the midnight.
Calverley makes those dactyls behave as they should—especially at the beginning of the line, where first-syllable emphasis is crucial—but the effort is apparent. And at least at one point strong scansion seems to have led to a mistranslation. No one, it is safe to say, has ever seen midnight coming: what can be scary (like the approach of a god) is sudden nightfall.
Lattimore—surprisingly, since it should be a showpiece for any translator—is by no means at his best in this passage. Heavily and awkwardly enjambed where the Greek is not, its overloaded third and fourth lines seem devoid of any clear accentual pattern. But his first line is a stress hexameter, and his second a fair example of the 5/6-beat quasi-hexametrical line that he pioneered:
So he spoke in prayer, and Phoibos
Apollo heard him,
and strode down along the pinnacles
of Olympos, angered
in his heart, carrying across his
shoulders the bow and the hooded
quiver; and the shafts clashed on the
shoulders of the god walking
angrily. He came as night comes down.
Verity’s first line is identical with Lattimore’s, so he too scores one stress hexameter. His next two lines are vaguely iambic. His fourth is plain prose. His fifth, for no discernible reason, is in anapaests, their didi-dah cheerfulness undercutting the force of the night simile. Unlike Calverley and Lattimore, he at least makes an attempt to match the Greek’s linear rhetoric (though the direct shoulders/shoulders echo is ugly, and not justified by Homer, who keeps the two words well apart):
So he spoke in prayer and Phoebus
Apollo heard him,
and came down from Olympus’s
heights furious in his heart,
his bow and lidded quiver hanging
from his shoulders.
The arrows clattered against the angry
as he moved; and he came on like
None of these versions succeeds in capturing the four key qualities demanded by Matthew Arnold: rapidity, plainness, directness, and nobility, particularly the first and the last. But Mitchell is very conscious of them, though (as a good Drydenist) he argues that “faithfulness to the Homeric style ... sometimes requires a good deal of freedom from the words of the Greek.” He says he has “worked hard to find a balance between endstopping and enjambment,” though he clearly does not regard Homer as an adequate guide in this matter, and as a result he often transforms the poet’s rhetoric. West has seen to it that the quiver loses its formulaic lid, but in compensation “swift to answer” and “with every step” are Mitchell’s own additions:
He ended his prayer, and Apollo was
swift to answer,
striding to Earth from the pinnacles
filled with fury. His bow and his quiver
on his shoulder. The arrows rattled with
Down he strode, and his coming was
like the night.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? First, that the task of producing strict stress hexameters, at great length, is in all likelihood impossible—and, given the linguistic and accentual peculiarities of English, undesirable. Second, that the “Lattimore line” is to date the best substitute for the hexameter that anyone has devised. Third, that this line is open to a wide variety of prosodic abuses, several of which are on display in the examples here cited. Fourth, and perhaps most important, that translators too often seem deaf to the all-important linear rhetoric employed by Homer, with infinite skill and subtlety, in his hexametrically patterned sentence structure.
Is it possible to get closer to this Homeric style? I have always thought so. Let me (perhaps rashly) attempt my own version of the passage cited above:
Thus he spoke in prayer, and Phoebus
Apollo heard him.
Down from the peaks of Olympus
he came, enraged at heart,
carrying on his shoulders his bow and
arrows rattling loud on his shoulders
as in his rage he
strode on his way: his approach was
like that of night.
This kind of close approximation is not much in favor with translation theorists, who seem far happier with experimentalists, such as Christopher Logue in War Music, taking off from Homer with their own recreations, or with oralists, such as Stanley Lombardo, aiming to catch the current zeitgeistin spoken performance. But in an age when fewer people than ever can read Homeric Greek, there is surely a pressing need for the kind of Iliad that gives the newcomer some exciting sense of how Homer actually went about his business—an achievement quite different from the ultra-literary methods of, say, Milton or Virgil.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER is that no one to date has rivaled the Homeric epic’s extraordinary staying power—nearly three millennia now, and still going strong. What made it so memorable? Various factors have been suggested, but chief among them surely must be its uncanny universalist insight into the wellsprings of human nature, in combination with a driving dramatic narrative, both expressed in a never-to-be-repeated poetic extension of the high millennia-old oral tradition. This was caught and developed structurally on a hitherto unattainably vast scale by bards (just possibly one preternaturally gifted eighth-century BCE poet) using the brand new tool of alphabetic writing. But it was, almost inevitably, a one-shot. From then on writing won, and the result was written literature.
Even so, this Homeric blend of past and present, oral and written, survived to be heard, read, and studied in awed admiration long after the unique circumstances that engendered it were forgotten. By the sixth century the two Homeric epics were standardized and performed as an integral part of Athens’s public festivals. They came to be consulted as repositories of ancient wisdom, on everything from chivalry to religious conduct (hence the popular tag about their being “the Bible of the Greeks”). Aeschylus claimed that his plays were merely slices from Homer’s great feast. Herodotus learned at least as much from The Iliad and The Odyssey as he did from the thinkers and doctors of Ionia. The scholars of Alexandria and Byzantium regarded the Homeric texts as by far the most important ones that they edited. From the Renaissance at least until the eighteenth century, Homer was the chief, and almost the only, Greek literary text that held its own against a heavily Latin-dominated culture: Chapman’s Homer translation was out there in the Elizabethan age along with Thomas Phaer’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as rendered by Arthur Golding, whereas Aeschylus went untranslated until 1777. The real spate of Homeric translations began in the Victorian age, and has never stopped. Their numbers far exceed those devoted to any other ancient poet.
From those first recitations down to our own day, The Iliad and The Odyssey have always spoken, directly and uniquely, to our common humanity. The Victorian age, colonial-minded and for the most part without serious military conflicts, responded best to the linked themes of exploration and Heimweh treated in the Odyssey. But not long afterward warfare and its savagery became one of the central experiences of the West: as Richard Martin says of the period after 1914, “For the rest of the blood-soaked century, the tale of Achilleus mostly symbolizes pain.” Two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, have all sent us back to The Iliad to find, as Jonathan Shay memorably demonstrated in Achilles in Vietnam, that these ancient warriors were no strangers to post-traumatic stress disorder.
In some respects—notably the communalization of grief that set rigid laws governing the recovery of bodies and their subsequent funeral ceremonies in safety under truce—Homer’s ancient warriors did rather better than their modern descendants. The Iliad may be for the most part the “poem of force” described, with ruthless vividness, by Simone Weil; but there are more moments of compassion and grace in the course of it than she was prepared to admit. Even social priorities have a part to play: when Diomedes (as tough a warrior as any) and Glaukos realize that they are bound by an old family guest in friendship, they refuse to fight each other, and exchange not only civilities, but also armor.
Consider the scenes introduced on Achilles’s new shield by Hephaestus. Of these only one deals with battle, siege, and ambush, with personified Strife and Uproar joining in the fray. The rest convey a vivid picture of rural peace and civilized discourse: marriages, dances, festivals, ploughing, reaping, vintaging well-tended olive groves and the pasturage of cattle. Here is a world where the worst danger is from predatory lions, and a murder is resolved by carefully debated judgment over the blood price. Once again these Mycenaeans did better than their modern descendants: in Auden’s famous poem “The Shield of Achilles,” Thetis gets a shock when she sees what Hephaestus has done:
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
What is more, the strongly pacific motif worked out on that shield in The Iliad is not merely a cynical or nostalgic whim on the part of the gods’ armorer. Homer’s famous extended similes, almost two hundred of them, spread throughout the epic, belong with few exceptions to the same halcyon world. Natural phenomena—storms and snowfall; rain and hail; the varied light of sun, moon, stars, or forest fires—form their background, and their details are culled from undisturbed country life. The blood of a wound is staunched as quickly as milk curdles when fig juice is stirred into it. A dying warrior’s drooping head is likened to a poppy beaten down by rain. The tug-of-war over Patroclus’s body calls to mind tanners stretching a hide. When both sides hold their ground, the poet evokes the image of a poor woman balancing wool against weight in the scales, anxious to earn a pittance for her children. The clatter of close-quarter fighting is likened to the din of woodcutters at work in the forest. Warriors crowding round Sarpedon’s corpse are said to resemble the flies that buzz round full milk pails in spring. Through these similes a kind of haunting parallel world, glimpsed at sharp intervals, exists alongside that of the battlefield.
There is thus an essential ambiguity—appropriate enough, given the insoluble enigma of the poem’s composition, at the moment of change between two radically different worlds—about the way in which the events and the characters of The Iliad are meant to be seen. This ambiguity is brought out with characteristic skill by Richard Martin:
Is The Iliad a celebration of heroism or an interrogation of its basic—and potentially flawed—assumptions? Whom should we emulate, if anyone, in this somber depiction of men and women under extreme conditions? Is it an elegy for a lost golden age, when people lived more out-sized and exciting lives? Or is it a warning about the catastrophes such lives engender? Is it a poem meant to shore up the ideological underpinnings of a fading aristocracy of self-centered warlords? Or does it capture the first glimmerings of a communal consciousness of the type that emerged in increasingly democratic (or at least nonelite) institutions within the city-state?
For me, the poem’s greatness is evident in the fact that it is at one and the same time all of these things, and not only because it is the product of a culture in rapid transition between the oral and the written, between historical myth and history, between the memory of the old Mycenaean warrior-kings and the emerging soldier-farmers of the city-state and the hoplite phalanx. Its extraordinary humanity can contain them all, virtues and vices alike. We understand what instincts drive the heroic Achilles, but Thersites the radical demagogue gets his moment, too.
THAT IS WHY, as Martin reminds us, our “experience of the Iliad inevitably becomes one of self-exploration and self-definition.” In our less ambitious way we are like Aeschylus, feeding at Homer’s great banquet, each generation finding what best answers to its needs. The British poet Alice Oswald, in Memorial, clearly haunted by the black granite stretches of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, with its endless list of names, has conceived the idea of giving the countless casualties mentioned in The Iliad a similar list of their own, projected on a kind of virtual memorial wall, thus formalizing their ancient demise through a modern image still raw with suffering. She follows up this list with a poetic sequence of the facts about each victim that she could scrape together from the Homeric text (and then decorate with her own inventions), followed by a similarly embellished translation of any simile that takes her fancy. (These last, for some inscrutable reason, are printed twice—are they really that important?)
Dolon, the ferret-like spy from West’s allegedly spurious Book Ten, gets a lengthy entry, but then Oswald has all of that book on which to draw. About most of Homer’s dead The Iliad tells us little or nothing, and Oswald’s efforts to improve on this calculated reticence, taken cumulatively, irritate. Occasional jarring modernisms (elevator doors, parachutes, motor bikes) disrupt the timelessness that they are presumably meant to uphold. Rather worse are the knowing personal and sexual comments. Pylaemenes’s “manners were loose like old sacking.” It is not enough that Menesthius was killed by Paris: Paris is “running in a love-rage towards him/With the smell of Helen still on his hands.” Echepolus is known for his “cold seed-like concentration,” whatever that may be. Alcathous’s heart, famously, still beats with a spear through it, making the spear quiver—but for Oswald the spear “began to tick tick tick but not for love.” Homer tells us of Iphidamas’s death as a newlywed at the hands of Agamemnon, and it is Oswald who adds, gratuitously, “She said even on his wedding night/He seemed to be wearing armour.” What do such comments add to our appreciation of The Iliad? And, more to the point, who would like one of them in his obituary?
As Richard Martin reminds us, the Western tradition was quick to see Achilles in a way that The Iliad does not see him (certainly not overtly)—as a lover. As early as Aeschylus’s play The Myrmidons, Achilles is shown recalling his dear companion’s “thighs and kisses.” Here, one might have thought, is where Oswald could have worked effectively. But not a bit of it: in one of her briefest entries she makes an oblique allusion to Patroclus’s accidental act of homicide as a young boy, and kills him off by the end of the sentence. The only reference we are given to Achilles is that Patroclus “grew up blurred under the background noise of his fosterbrother’s voice”—hardly friendly, that, let alone romantic.
FOR A MODERN fictional version of the homoerotic relationship assumed by Aeschylus, and promoted by contemporary classicists such as James Davidson, we do better with Madeline Miller’s much-touted first novel, The Song of Achilles. Davidson, on his own showing, should adore Miller’s book. In The Greeks and Greek Love, when stressing the neglected importance of starry-eyed infatuation, what he calls “homobesottedness,” Davidson remarks of terms such as erôs that “they sound as if they are all about sex, sex, sex, and we have to make a real effort to remember that they are in fact all about love, love, love.” For Miller, no effort is needed. Never, not for one moment, does her overpowering atmosphere of passionate adolescent innocence let up, even when describing a sexual encounter between her doomed lovers. I suspect it is this that has been responsible for the novel’s success.
But while her pursuit of innocence may have left the main storyline intact, it required her to change Patroclus. Originally a dominant older guide and counselor—the typical Greek erastês (lover) dealing with Achilles as a younger pretty-boy erômenos (love object)—he here appears as an adoring, slightly younger worshipper. This Patroclus, indeed, is something of a wimp. How he managed, even accidentally, to kill another boy in childhood defies all comprehension. Undersized, scared of his father, he really hates fighting, and is not any good at it. (There is no real explanation of how he knocks off a seasoned warrior such as Sarpedon, even when togged out in his boyfriend’s armor.) Patroclus is much happier behind the lines, serving as a skilled medic and basking happily in Achilles’s unexplained devotion to him.
This revision once granted, though, Miller takes us, at a brisk pace, through all the well-known stages of their joint career. She has a remarkable skill for making the reader accept, almost without thinking, the Homeric interplay of gods or semi-divine creatures with mortals. Achilles’s mother Thetis is a scary enough goddess, black-eyed, bloody-minded, with a distinct aura, and the trick of sudden manifestations and vanishings, but in Miller she is also the embodiment of the original parent from hell, with every neurosis in the book. Miller even manages, convincingly and without embarrassment, those tricky months of education on Mount Pelion with Cheiron the wise centaur, and never mind that he is a horse from the waist onward. But perhaps her most successful trick—it is certainly her most daring—is to prolong Patroclus’s first-person narrative beyond his death by virtually ignoring it: now he’s alive, now he’s a shade. With minimal explanation, the same voice goes on.
There are surprising moments, not least when Patroclus pursues his lover to Skyros, finds him dressed as a girl, and ends by being entrapped into sex with an angry Deidameia, already pregnant after working the same stunt on Achilles. Small wonder that their resultant offspring Neoptolemos, known as Pyrrhos (“Redhead”), turns up in Troy as a cold, steely, prematurely adult twelve-year-old bent on avenging his father by means of wholesale slaughter, from Priam to Polyxena: Miller’s explanation of this nasty conclusion to the traditional myth is all too plausible.
But through it all there persists the high innocence of the lovers’ relationship, and after a while one begins to wish that these two adolescents, in particular the killing machine that is Achilles, would for God’s sake grow up. But then, by about Book Eleven of The Iliad, Achilles’s gigantic sulks and obsession with an outworn code of honor begin to have the same effect, not least when we recall the marvelous earlier scene of parting between Hector, his wife Andromache, and his baby son, Astyanax—whose brains Neoptolemos will beat out when the city falls. What remains for us is the moving reconciliation—too little, too late— between Achilles and old Priam, and the consolation of great tragic art bringing this saga of wasted heroism and selfcentered pride to an unforgettable conclusion. To which skill—Eliot’s “condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)”—no translation has yet done full justice, and perhaps none ever will.
Peter Green is the Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics in the University of Texas at Austin, and currently serves as a faculty member of the Department of Classics at the University of Iowa. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.