Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Rage of Achilles - Book 1

"Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,"

Thus begins 'The Iliad'. Popular perception of 'The Iliad' is that the poem contains the entire events, right from the elopement of Helen, to the 10 years of Trojan war and finally the fall of Troy. But it actually tells us about a small part of the entire events, a part that occurred in the tenth and final year of the war. Well, what is about then? As the beginning of the poem states, it is mainly about Achilles and his rage. 'Rage', 'Anger', 'Wrath', whatever the term is , it has got to be one of the purest emotion an emotion that takes no prisoners and destroys everything in it's path. And it is the running theme here.

Why is Achilles angry. It is told next. During the course of the war, the Greeks (am using the term 'Greeks' here instead of 'Achaeans' that is used in the book, simply because it seems easier to relate), took the daughter of a priest of the sun god Apollo prisoner. When 'Chryses' comes to the Greeks and is ready to pay a huge ransom for his daughter, he is rebuffed by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition. The sorrow stricken old man invokes Apollo

"the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow
If I ever roofed a shrines to please your heart,
ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.
Pay the Danaans back - your arrows for my tears!"

The last 4 lines are most interesting here. Thousands of years ago an old man invoked a God reminding about all the offerings, sacrifices he had given to him and it still sounds familiar even today. Don't we do the same today,  don't we invoke the gods of today reminding him of all the good things that we have done, asking for his blessing in return?

Apollo decides to honor the request and strikes the Greek army with plague. For nine days the Greek army is decimated by it. The Greeks hold a meeting and Achilles asks a diviner among them, Calchas to tell them the reason for this plague and how to stop it., Calchas

"Thestor's son, the clearest by far of all the seers
who scan the flight of birds. He knew all things that are,
all things that rae past and all that are to come,"

Calchas tells the gathering that the daughter of the priest has to be returned and sacrifices made to Apollo for the plague to end. But there is a problem here. The girl is in the custody of 'Agamemnon' 
".. who now claims to be, by far,
the best of the Achaeans"

These lines give an idea of his mindset about his stature and standing. So obviously he refuses to let the girl go. Achilles persuades him, but Agamemnon has another trick up his sleeve. He says that he will take as compensation the girl in the custody of 'Achilles', a girl equal in beauty to the one he is giving up. Achilles goes into a rage and wants to kill him then and there, but is stopped by the goddess 'Athena'. He restrains himself and cannot stop the girl in his custody from being taken by Agamemnon. He however refuses to take any further part in the war, until

"someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will striker
Achaea's sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides,
harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you -
not when your hordes of fighters drop and die,
cut down by the hands of man-killing Hector! Then-
then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging
that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans!"

This reminds one of Karna deciding to not enter the battle until Bheeshma is alive. Notice too the reference to Hector here. Why is he singled out at the very beginning when no one from Troy has been introduced as yet. (Keep in mind that the poem doesn't say anything about the events preceding the current situation and so Hector from the PoV of the poem is as yet an unknown quantity).  Is it  a pointer that the book is going to be mainly about Achilles (which we come to know from the very first lines) and Hector, the two main protagonists in this war to end all wars?. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here, lets concentrate on the here and now.

So Achilles is humiliated and powerless to take his revenge. So what does he do. This is where we get an insight into what different forms the human emotion can take. Achilles in his rage, asks his mother 'Thetis' to ask Zeus to turn the war against the Greeks so that they are driven to the brink of destruction and everyone

"so even mighty Atrides can see how mad he was 
to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans"

A huge turnaround in mindset. Achilles who wanted the girl to be sent back so that the Greeks could be saved from destruction, now wants the same Greek army to be near decimated. All because of his individual ego and rage. But here Homer throws in several hints that Achilles may not live for long. Lines like

"You gave me life, short as that life will be"

"Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too,"

tells us that he may not survive the war. Remember, you need to the poem as if you are hearing about the events for the first and you do not know anything in general about it. That's when you would be able to appreciate the nuances in it. If you carry the baggage of your existing knowledge the above lines do not have the same impact as you already know the fate of Achilles. So it's not just ego that drives Achilles, but the yearning to make the most of the short time he has, the short time in which he has to carve out his own standing in pantheon of heroes. 

Now the scene shifts to Mount Olympus, where Thetis goes to Zeus and asks him to do as Achilles has requested. What does Zeus say? It's a interesting insight into the marital lives of Gods and a bit humorous too if I may say.

"Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera.
Even now in the face of all the immortal gods
she harries me perpetually, Hera charges me
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.

Is Zeus, the god of all gods, the leader of the Pantheon a henpecked husband? Not really, but looks like even the greatest of the great gods are bit afraid or lets say respectful of his wife, not wanting any marital discord. And like any other husband, his secrets cannot remain hidden, as Hera finds about the request of Thetis and says

"Always your pleasure, whenever my back is turned,
to settle things in your grand clandestine way.
You never deign, do you, freely and frankly,
to share your plots with me - never, not a word!"

mmm, Hera could be speaking for all the wives of the world here. Quite an interesting scene of domesticity in Mount Olympus, a philandering, autocratic husband and a jealous, suspicious wife. Should make us feel a bit glad that domestic strife is common even there and that we poor mortals should not make too much of our strife here.

Zeus as we all know is quite autocratic and as Hera herself says "settling things his way". So a domestic fight ensues and Hera finally backs off when their son 'Hephaestus' plays peacemaker between them.

The book ends with a familiar scene at the end of any marital discord when Zeus goes to is own bed

"There he climbed and there he slept and by his side
lay Hera the Queen, the goddess of the golden throne"

What next? Oh a whole of things are about to happen, but not in this post. Lets take one book at a time and savor the nuances, meter, arrangement of words in this great poem. I am   not qualified to comment on the classics and am reading it from the view of a layman and things that I was fascinated by in it. So do join me if you are interested in this journey through a violent war, with scenes of destruction and beauty interspersed, through the journey of men driven to madness and clarity, men who are helpless in the face of their destiny, are driven to their end by it, men who crave to be become immortals (in thought if not in reality) and actually become one by killing and paradoxically by being killed. 

Oral Tradition and Written form

There has been a constant debate on whether the poem was recited orally at first and then converted to written format. 'Alexander Pope', reputed to be one of the best translators of 'The Iliad' has said 'Homer makes us Hearers'. I am not a scholar and so cannot comment with any great confidence on this, but as I am reading it, I can hear the words echoing in the mind and so may be it is true that it was initially in the oral form. 

I also noticed an interesting thing while I was reading. The part where the priest's daughter is captured, when he comes with the ransom, his being rejected and finally invoking Apollos is repeated nearly ad-verbatim when Achilles recounts the events to his mother. This got me thinking. In modern texts, the author would just have mentioned it as say "he recounted the events to his mother", but not so here. Why? If the poem had been targeted at the reading audience then maybe it would have work, but when you are catering to listeners, then probably you would want to recount the events again, because the listeners do no have any thing to fall back on (except their memory). But when he is the midst of listening to the poem, can his mind go in parallel to what was said earlier, while he continues to listen what the bard is saying now? The modern reader however can turn a few pages back and read what was said earlier, a facility which was not available then. Of course, this is just my observation and (useless) two cents on it.  

Note on the translation

There are 3-4 translations which are said to be the best. My choice of the translation itself would take a post, but suffice to say that it involved a lot of, what else googling and reading about the translations. I settled on the translation by 'Robert Fagles' mainly due to the post here. The person here has analysed 3 translations and given his first choice as

"Fagles provides is an easy read, but not too easy, and his style is superb without being overwhelming. I would also say though, that any of these three would be a terrific choice – provided you purchase the right copy of Fitzgerald. If you’re only going to get one however, I’d suggest Fagles."

As a lay man this is what I wanted from a translation, something that wouldn't overwhelm a normal English speaking/reading person like me, but at the same time wouldn't dumb it down. And the post is spot on in it's analysis as far as I have read the book. 

"Robert Fagles’ translation is a bit freer than Lattimore’s, which again can either be a good or bad thing depending on your needs"

"Of the three translations, Fagles is the most recent and so his verse is the most ‘modern’ sounding."

Yes, it seems a bit free and does sound modern. For instance the lines

she harries me perpetually, Hera charges me
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.

In fact the entire stanzas about Zeus and Hera is quite modern, but as I said it doesn't dumb down the entire action. Thanks to the person at '' for guiding me in making a good choice.

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