Book Of A Lifetime: The Iliad, By Homer
Friday 02 September 2011
Every night at bedtime, my mother would read me a story. The books were classic and beloved: runaway bunnies, saying goodnight to the moon, a friendship between a pig and a spider. But one evening, the book she chose made me sit up with extra attention. Maybe it was the serious cover, brick-red with a black drawing of a woman in armour. Maybe it was the thesaurus-sized heft of it, or the monumental font of the title. Most definitely, it was the first line: "Sing, goddess, of the terrible rage of Achilles."
For several months, I had the pleasure of hearing the 'Iliad' just as its first audiences did: out loud. Just like those crowds 3000 years ago, the poem held me in thrall. I loved the language's swift rhythms, the story's heaven-and-earth spanning scope, and most of all the larger-than-life heroes. Its plot was deceptively simple: the best fighter in the Greek army quarrels with his commander, and refuses to fight; because of this, they begin to lose the war.
But its truths were complex, and startling. There was no euphemism here: guts, literal and figurative, were spilled on every page. I found myself holding my breath, afraid my mother would stop reading. I felt like I was being allowed a glimpse behind the veil of the adult secrets of war, grief and mortality. When Patroclus died, I remember saying, "But the gods are going to bring him back to life, right?" Later, I listened in horror as Achilles tied Hector's corpse to his chariot. "But Achilles is the good guy," I said. "Isn't he?"
I don't remember what answer my mother gave. But Homer's answer was clear enough. Nevermind the sitcom buffoonery of the squabbling gods, or the magical interventions, this was no fairy-tale. I had never heard a story so real.
Years later, when I had the opportunity to learn ancient Greek, I jumped at the chance, eager to hear Homer's voice in its purest form. Would I still love the 'Iliad' as much as I remembered? Even more. The epic story was just as gripping, but now it was the smaller touches took my breath away: Patroclus's face streaming tears like water over dark rock, the scene between Hector and his beloved wife Andromache. Homer hadn't created a poem, but a world, rich and sensual, from the savour of the searing dinner-meat to the bristling crest on a helmet.
Since then, I have returned to the 'Iliad' many times, and it never disappoints. There is always some piece of beauty that startles me, always a detail that makes me re-examine something I thought I understood. It is the sort of book one returns to at every life stage, that one grows old with. And grows young, too. When I have children, I plan to pull out that old, red copy, and read it again, for the first time, with them.
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