The Iliad

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The Iliad – Homer

Yesterday I posted about The Iliad‘s sort-of-sequel, The Odyssey, so really, these posts are in the wrong order. I wrote about The Odyssey because I wanted to challenge the notion that it is dull and difficult to read, which made sense because it is generally considered to be the more accessible of the two, however it got me thinking and I decided that The Iliad deserved the same treatment, not least because I actually preferred The Iliad.

In a sense, I’m very mainstream in my literary tastes- I rarely like something that everyone else hates- and so when my lecturer mentioned that students tend to prefer the ‘easier’ Odyssey, I assumed that I would follow the same pattern, but I ended up bucking the trend. The Iliad is more difficult to read than The Odyssey but it’s also much more rewarding; it’s more complex, more ambiguous, more varied in its characters and a much more moving piece of literature.

The Iliad covers an eventful few weeks during the final year of the Trojan War (although it jumps around a lot and much backstory and legend is related, as is the way with epics) and presents the reader with viewpoints from the Greek and Trojan side. It covers disputes within the Greek army, as well as the petty battling among the gods, and, unlike The Odyssey, things are most certainly not in black and white. It’s not so much a case of picking a side as it is of watching helplessly as two characters you find yourself rooting for battle each other to the death. War in The Iliad isn’t right versus wrong but man versus man, and victory and tragedy become one and the same. Although the text was written thousands of years ago and includes much myth and legend, its presentation of war still rings true and is perhaps more pertinent today than ever.

The Iliad is, in short, an astounding piece of literature. The legends are drawn together so seamlessly and the narrative moves so fluidly back and forth in time that one can only speculate that this must have taken months, perhaps even years, to plan. There are many long and tedious battle scenes, but in between that there are stories of love and loyalty and a very touching familial scene between Hector and his family. It can also be difficult to keep track of who’s who if you don’t know much about Greek legend (which I didn’t) but you get the hang of it after a while, and the varied cast of characters and their tangled lives certainly keeps it interesting- sometimes it feels more like a soap opera than an epic Greek poem! The most difficult (and deathly boring) part of The Iliad is definitely the epic lists, such as the Catalogue of Ships in Book II (not gonna lie, I just skipped it). The epithets can also be distracting and a little repetitive (they were a poetic convention but they just seem redundant and often annoying today) but you get used to them.

So to sum it up, The Iliad is more complex and much less familiar in form than The Odyssey, but it is also a much more gratifying piece of literature. You learn more about Greek myth and legend, experience an interesting portrayal of humanity and war and learn more about the disputes and petty jealousies of the gods. It’s not an easy read, but remember that easy doesn’t equate to good, and it’s nowhere near as difficult or boring as I thought it would be. It’s still literature that you can sink your teeth into, and if you take it Book by Book then you’ll have it finished in no time!

The Odyssey

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The Odyssey – Homer

I had to study this text for my Classical and Biblical module last year and whilst it’s not the sort of material I usually blog about, I thought I’d write a post about it because I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and it’s actually a lot more accessible than most people think. The Odyssey tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, an epic journey that takes him ten years. Back home, he is presumed dead and his wife and queen, Penelope, is being inundated with marriage proposals from suitors, who are also taking advantage of the palace’s hospitality.

I assumed that The Odyssey would be boring and difficult to read, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had the Oxford World Classics edition, which is translated into prose, and so the poem reads almost like a novel. In fact, The Odyssey is often cited as one of the most significant precursors to the novel. The timeframe of the story is not linear and there are frame narratives along the way, so it’s necessary to pay close attention to that to avoid getting confused, but other than that I really wouldn’t describe The Odyssey as difficult to read. And it’s far from boring; there’s romance and adventure aplenty as Odysseus fights a cyclops, beds various goddesses and flirts with a young princess (whilst expecting his wife to remain faithful to him, even though she’s 99% sure he’s dead- double standards. But it’s Ancient Greece, what can you do?).

As well as being pleasurable, The Odyssey is also a great way to get to grips with various classical myths and legends, such as Scylla the Sea Monster and Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. I’ve always been interested in Greek myths, so this was a great way to learn more- some of the stories are incredibly juicy. Parts of it are also very modern and it’s an interesting reflection of Greek life, culture and society if you’re interested in history!

So if you’re interested in classical literature/myth and legend, fancy something a bit different or just want to sound well-read, I’d definitely recommend The Odyssey to you. It’s an easier read than The Iliad and is certainly entertaining, plus a prose translation means it’s not difficult to read if you’re new to classics and poetry. It’s a beautifully written work and is one of the oldest in the Western cannon. I certainly prefer it to The Aeneid, which I’d only recommend if you’re very interested in classics and history as it’s drier and more political, whilst The Odyssey is more sensual and entertaining. Plus, you can get a free version on the Kindle, so you’ve got nothing to lose (although I really do recommend the Oxford World Classics edition). Happy reading!

Have YOU read The Odyssey? What did you think? Please let me know in a comment!