Donaldus. I’m reading Caroline Alexander’s new translation of the Iliad. Ms. Alexander was a Rhodes classmate of mine. She’s done amazing work in the course of her life. I cannot imagine anything more purely honorable than to translate the Iliad from Greek into English. I’m not sure yet what I think of her translation. Book one is clear, compelling, at times poetic, stark. It feels like epic in its sweep and grandeur.
Book One: The Quarrel Between Achilles and Agamemnon. In sacking a city allied with Troy, Agamemnon has taken as a war prize a young woman name Chryseis. She is the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Her father comes to the camp of the Achaeans (the Greeks) and offers splendid gifts of recompense to ransom his daughter. Agamemnon, the war leader and political leader of the Achaeans, not only refuses the ransom, but sends Chryses away in a haughty and humiliating way. Chryses prays to Apollo to punish the arrogance of the Achaeans, and Apollo complies by sending a plague to the Achaean camp. For nine days the Greek warriors perish.
Now Achilles, the greatest by far of the Achaean fighters, the son of the Goddess Thetis, the “best of the Achaeans,” calls an assembly to find a way toend the plague and prevent sheer destruction. He asks a seer named Calchas to interpret the crisis. Calchas explains that the girl must be returned to her father immediately and without any ransom in return. At this, Agamemnon, who is a powerful man, but arrogant, bull-headed, and thin-skinned, proclaims that he will return the woman, but he will expect a replacement slave girl in recompense, and he would not be afraid to take such a prize from Achilles, Ajax, or Odysseus.
At this Achilles begins to grow in wrath. He advises Agamemnon to comply with the seer’s suggestion, and when the Achaeans sack Troy Agamemnon will get all the booty he might wish. Agamemnon now says that he will take Achilles’ girl Briseis, to remind Achilles (great fighter, pain in the neck otherwise) who is the commander in chief.
Achilles considers killing Agamemnon on the spot, but his personal goddess Athene intervenes. She instructs him to spare Agamemnon, but to withdraw from battle until the Achaeans see the error of Agamemnon’s rash and prideful decision.
Achilles prays to his mother Thetis, a relatively minor sea goddess, to intervene with Zeus to give the Trojans the advantage in the war. Zeus reluctantly agrees to allow the Trojans to prevail in the war. His jealous, nagging, insecure with Hera senses what he has done, and complains bitterly that he never consults her about his Olympian strategies. THIS quarrel ends in Homeric laughter when their son Hephaestus intervenes to patch things up, then distributes ambrosial nectar to all the gods and goddesses on Olympus. Because he is a cripple, his bustling inspires “unquenchable laughter” among the gods.
Thus we see two quarrels in Book One of the Iliad, one mortal, one immortal. The book ends with Achilles nursing his wrath on the shore at the edge of the Achaean camp. We know that Zeus will now bring about the temporary destruction of the Achaeans.
NOTES: 1) Interesting that Agamemnon threatens to take a prize from Ajax, Achilles, even Odysseus, before he settles on Achilles. 2) Odysseus leads the boat party that returns Chryseis to her priestly father. 3) Athene actually grabs Achilles by the hair to prevent him from pulling his sword and murdering Agamemnon. 4) Agamemnon, who is portrayed as a brute, tells the assembly that he prefers Chryseis to his wife Clytemnestra. Little does he know that she has taken up with another man, and they will murder him on the day of his homecoming after the war. Clytemnestra has a number of good reasons for despising Agamemnon, not least of which is that he sacrificed (killed) his own daughter Iphigenia in order to get favorable winds to sail to Troy. 5) Nestor intervenes with the first of his many tedious speeches, but the advice he gives is excellent: Agamemnon did wrong to take the prize from Achilles, but Achilles does not have Agamemnon’s stature and should be less insubordinate. 6) There are no great Homeric similes in Book One. Just a few minor and unremarkable similes. 7) After his angry speech, Achilles dashes the scepter on the ground. 8) We hear several times that Achilles has been destined to have a short but glorious life. That’s one reason he is so angry: if his life is to be short, the quid pro quo was that he would achieve immortal renown and be honored during the brief time he has on earth. 9) Achilles weeps for a considerable time after relinquishing his prize. Homeric heroes are highly testosteronic, but they are not afraid to cry. 10) Achilles is gracious to the messengers (errand boys) who come on Agamemnon’s behalf to get the girl. 11) Briseis is not eager to leave Achilles to go to the hut of Agamemnon. 12) Finally, the story of the Iliad is not the War at Troy, but rather the WRATH of Achilles in his quarrel with Agamemnon.
Next: Book Two and the Catalogue of Ships.