AN AWFUL lot of bullocks get burnt in the Iliad. But this is only the first of many salutary shocks awaiting those who decide to listen to the new Penguin Classics tape of Homer's amazing poem. We are living in a time when the so-called canon is often held up for ridicule: all those great books of the past are assumed to be merely a capitalist trick, a way of perpetuating a sexist-racist- bourgeois-fascist ideology. Even Homer is included in the list of those who somehow uphold our, er, totally bogus and irrelevant value system, with its hypocritical morality and parochial terror of 'the other'.
But even the most cursory experience of the Iliad - and what could be more cursory than listening to Derek Jacobi while negotiating the traffic cones on our motorways? - is enough to show that nothing could be more 'other' than this strange and savage epic about gods and men locked in vicious combat. There isn't anything we can recognise as a moral reflex: as David Denby pointed out in a recent New Yorker essay, the Iliad is one long punch-up between men who like reciting their family trees. The only values they recognise are to do with glory and honour and death, and the gods pursue their fatuous tiffs with an Olympian indifference to the suffering they cause in the mortal sphere.
Take the moment when Patroclus, fretful about the plight of the Argives, pinned against their beaked ships, puts on Achilles' armour and goes to war. After a while he comes upon Thestor, the son of Enops:
Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone, / ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard / he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail, / hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched / on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea, / some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook. / So with the spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car, / his mouth gaping round the glittering point / and flipped him down face-first, / dead as he fell, his life breath blown away.
This is not exactly Chucky, but it is not far off. Who knows how many motorists, after listening to all six tapes, will feel like skewering the slowcoach hesitating at the lights or dawdling on a roundabout? As usual, Homer concots a weird intimacy with violence by comparing it to a familiar scene. Corpses are crushed like barley under the hooves of oxen; warriors swarm over a dead Trojan hero like flies over the brimming milk buckets in spring; Ajax is pushed backwards like a stubborn donkey driven by boys with sticks. As Bernard Knox writes in his excellent introductory booklet, this creates: 'an exquisite balance between the celebration of war's tragic, heroic values and those creative poles of civilised life that war destroys'.
Penguin Classics has used Robert Fagles' splendid and energetic 1990 translation. Everything comes across loud and clear, especially those stark shifts of focus that characterise the poem: in the tender farmyard metaphors we see the battlefield as if from a great height, and with godlike detachment; but at other times we are shoved in close, right into the flapping mouth with its glittering bronze hook. It is abridged, but not by much (it is nine hours), and obviously it would have been better left uncut. In keeping the nasty bits and skipping some of the long speeches between the gods, Penguin has intensified the action-packed side of the poem. But one of Homer's great tricks is to keep the mighty climax - Achilles' furious and slaughterous appearance on the battlefield - suspended for so long amid recollections of a quieter life. The Iliad is an epic tribute to a man's wrath, but we have to wait for thousands of lines to see the man with a spear in his hand. The sense in which we are somehow on Achilles' side, the unsettling feeling the reader has of wanting him to wade thigh deep in Trojan blood, is a tribute to narrative cunning rather than to any moral judgements we can make, since by all modern standards Achilles' rage is a petty business.
Derek Jacobi's performance of the poem is fine, though not much more than that. He seems to interpret the varying degrees of war ardour on an arch modern scale of manliness and effeminacy, which seems especially inappropriate for the Iliad. It has often been hard to see Hector as a great hero - the Trojans seem so very dainty in comparison to the murderous Greeks - and Jacobi makes a faintly banal play of this contrast between the grand blood lust of the Argives and the more cultured, timorous mentality of the Trojans.
But this is a minor gripe: Jacobi's strong feeling for the rhythms of Fagles' verse makes the words fly out of the speaker with the blood still wet on them. Listening to the Iliad we can't help noticing how carefully it was composed to be heard rather than read. Nearly everything is repeated. Agamemnon sends his embassy to Achilles with an offer of 'seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of gold, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen massive stallions', and when the embassy arrives the offer is repeated word for word. Zeus comes to Agamemnon in a dream, and when Agamemnon awakes he recites the same speech to his troops. And then there are the famous tags: Odysseus, the great tactician; Agamemnon, lord of men, skilled breaker of horses; the tall Hector, with helmet flashing; the long-haired Achaeans; Nestor, the seasoned charioteer; and the brilliant Achilles.
The Iliad is only one in the excellent new series of Penguin Classics - a list that includes Madame Bovary and Dracula. At 20 quid, these tapes make books look cheap, and the readings do not always flatter the books. In the case of Dracula, Richard E Grant's lovely, ghoulish rendering exposes the kitsch aspects of Bram Stoker's prose by slowing it down. Listening is luxurious - we gratefully pass on the responsibility for our concentration to someone else - but it is slow, and all the shuddering at ghastly visions comes across as laboured and overdone. Again, it is a real pity that these are all abridgements: we even lose Dracula's famous and central line about Jonathan Harker not understanding the soul of a hunter.
But they are still serious treats, easily gripping enough to keep people idling in their cars, reluctant to get out until the end. And anyone laid up with the Beijing flu could do a lot worse than listen to the exploits of the swift runner Achilles, chasing bold Hector three times round the ramparts of Troy:
And Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed / as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings, / launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove / and the dove flits out from under, the hawk / screaming over the quarry, plunging over and over, / his fury driving him down to beak and tear his kill - / so Achilles flew at him. . .
There. Feel better?
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