I like audiobooks. I’m very fond of the lectures by The Teaching Company, and have so far listened to courses on linguistics, classical music, sentence construction, literature, and philosophy. Now, through Audible, I’m listening to Homer.
First I heard Ian McKellen read the Odyssey, and now I’m hearing Charlton Griffin read the Iliad. Both both have been incredible experiences. Over two weeks, I listen to the 13 hours of Odysseus’s journey home, and now I’m about half way through the 22 hours of the rage of Achilles. McKellen reads the Fagles translation, which is relatively plain and direct, although unfortunately that plain-ness sometimes descends into hackneyed phrasing, as if Fagles is trying to offer us a plumber-Homer; Griffin reads the much more classic Lattimore translation, which, unfortunately, is occasionally too formal and precious. Neither issue matters in works of this size and scope. I have been trying to imagine how ancient Greeks would have experienced the telling of these sagas, a single bard arriving at a hall, explaining he might be able to recount the story of Odysseus, if his lord had a little time free. And for evening after evening, the story would have unfolded, moving from Sparta to Troy, and from Circe’s isle to the underworld, and from great halls to a pig farm, Odysseus travelling ever closer to his home, and the great bow that only he can string, and the terrifying death awaiting his wife’s suitors. The Iliad, in contrast, is so enormous it beggars imagining. Once inside its world, it becomes your reality, and you begin to look around yourself for giant stones to hurl at skulking archers. It starts a little slower than the Odyssey, but it seems of nearly perfect construction, piece by piece of the poet’s design slipping into place.
Or almost. People have long argued whether Homer was a single man, or whether the epics were composed by generations of bards, or some middle place within those extremes. Listening, what was interesting to me is that the oddities of the Iliad feel different to those of the Odyssey. In the Iliad, the troubling issue is Hector. He doesn’t seem to quite fit into the narrative. He is supposed to be the second best fighter in the epic after Achilles (he terrifies all the Greeks), and yet we rarely see him live up to this reputation in actual fighting. He avoids Agammenon in battle, and is bested by both Diomedes and Ajax. His fighting greatness seems often vague, and at his best, he seems to scare the Greeks off so effectively that he doesn’t actually kill any of them. Either he seems a late addition to the story, or his original prowess has been papered over by a pro-Greek editor (whether this was Homer or someone else). And yet the muddle still works, because it leaves Hector an incredibly sad figure. The epic begins with him already aware his city is lost, and while he is a great man, he only survives through the repeated interventions of Apollo, interventions that will end as soon as Achilles re-enters the field. Even in his best moments he carries his doom.
In the Odyssey, frequently an surprising moment in the poem is given a rather awkward explanation at some earlier point. Usually the earlier explanation stands out oddly, as if listeners kept asking about the sense of a poetic line, and a nervous bard went back and added something to make it make sense. When Telemachus visits Menelaus, for instance, he does not announce himself, but the poem comments, awkwardly, that Menelaus recognised him but kept quiet. Then, later, Helen joins the feasting, and she recognises Telemachus immediately: it feels as if the audience, or other poets, asked how Menelaus could be less observant than Helen (even though this would fit the Menelaus of the Iliad), and so this aside was added, to keep the poem’s existing lines intact.
Another strange moment comes on Circe’s island. Odysseus knows Circe is a dangerous witch, but he marches towards her house unafraid, totally lacking a plan. Suddenly Hermes arrives, and hands him magic protection against Circe and gives him instructions for how to attack. Hermes’ arrival feels unmotivated and peculiar, stranger than most of the Gods’ appearances in the Iliad, which Homer usually tries to explain or weave into events either down in the real world or up in Olympus. This may be just me, but I have since been entertaining two possibilities. One is that originally, Odysseus overcame Circe without help, but the poem later passed through the hands of a very priestly-minded editor, who was concerned with the idea of a mortal defeating a demi-goddess. Hermes and his magical aid was added in to preserve the divide between gods and men. The other possibility: an earlier version of the poem showed Odysseus meeting an unknown smiling boy, who offers him help against Circe. Later performers and auditors of the poem kept asking, “Who’s the strange boy?” and he was turned into Hermes.
The two works have utterly different attitudes to religion. The Odyssey is the more pious, and it makes clear that while Odysseus has incredible gifts of body and mind, he is only victorious because of his long devotion to Athena. Even at the end, all his planning against the suitors merely gets him to the point when Athena can step in and assist. Whereas the Iliad feels too close to the gods to offer this kind of message. Diomedes, for instance, has an uncanny ability to recognise the gods and their influence—he seems far more of a seer than any of the people the poet calls seers—and early in the poem he attacks and gets the better of Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo. Both he and Achilles feel not too far off gods themselves. And any remaining reverence is lost because of the Iliad’s tragic design: the whole story revolves around Zeus’s decision to give glory to Achilles. None of the Trojans’ many supplications to the gods change this—even their seeming victories are part of Zeus’s big plan to destroy them, and that plan comes simply because of Thetis’s personal request. Faith is a supreme good in the Odyssey, and worthless in the Iliad.