Trust Me, "The Iliad" Is Not As Scary As You Think

Although the length, age, and revered “classic” status of The Iliad can sometimes make the thought of reading it for the first time intimidating, the story is well worth that initial leap of faith. Once a reader has taken that leap and read the first couple of chapters they will be hooked; so wrapped up in the story of Achilles, Hector, Patroklus and Paris that they will be unable to put it down.

The Robert Fagles translation is especially accessible, bringing these ancient heroes with their anger and honor right into our modern realm. Who could not be hooked when they read of Achilles’ disgust with Agamemnon in Chapter 1: “Shameless–armored in shamelessness–always shrewd with greed! How could any Argive soldier obey your orders…” Or when they get a peek at how Hector, the great hero of troy, softens when he is with his wife and son in Chapter 6: “Loving father laughed, mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector, quickly lifting the helmet from his head, set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight, and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods…”

Of course, interspersed with the chapters filled with drama and emotion are chapters filled with battle and death, the pettiness of the gods, and chapters which outline the history–not only of the Trojan war itself and what led to it, but the histories of individual warriors and their families. All of this means that while some chapters may be more difficult to read than others, there will be something for everybody in The Iliad, you just have to keep turning the pages.

I read this book over the course of an entire summer with my book group, and found that reading with a group, giving ourselves time to be leisurely with our reading and focus on two or four chapters at a time, having regular meetings to discuss our progress and questions, and having the opportunity to look up historical material and ask questions really made this a delightful reading experience. I highly recommend reading The Iliad with a group or partner, if possible.

The Iliad is one of the oldest, most influential writings in the Western Canon. Taking the time to read it not only gives the reader insight into the numerous pieces of literature that have followed, it beautifully and poignantly displays the best and the worst of humanity. Reading The Iliad gives us a glimpse into our own souls, into how little we’ve changed over the centuries. It shows us that even in our technology-filled world we each have the potential to be a bastard, a hero, a martyr or a god.

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