I've been reading this book since January, mostly along with the Classics and the Western Canon group on Goodreads (though I did go ahead and finish a bit early because I just. Had. To. Be. Done.). I initially thought the two-books-a-week pace would allow me to wallow in the poetry and really soak it up; instead, it just felt like Chinese water torture. TO SUMMARIZE: The Iliad is about a period of the Trojan War wherein Achilles (warrior of epic proportions) gets in a disagreement with Agamemnon (other Greek guy) while Hector (Trojan) tries to defend his city. There is much killing.
Since I'm already bitching here, let's start by talking about the experience of reading this thing. It (the experience, not the book) was gut-wrenchingly, maddeningly, eye-rollingly awful. One of my top ten biggest slogs of all time. First of all, it's repetitive to the max. Everyone is "Hector, breaker of horses," or "Achilles, son of blahdeblahblah," or "Aphrodite, laughter-loving," I REMEMBER HE WAS THE BREAKER OF HORSES ON PAGE ONE CALL HIM SOMETHING ELSE. There's a practical reason for this- if The Iliad really was an oral poem, the insertion of those descriptors made the lines work, and possibly served as space fillers which the reciter could remove and replace with something improvised. But knowing that didn't really make it less maddening.
There are also long, long, long sections of "this guy, son of this guy, fought this other guy- they exchanged some trash talk (which may or may not include recitations of one or the other's lineage [honestly, is this a battle or what? Who has time to exchange pleasantries in a war?]) before someone got a spear in the nipple and then the other guy stole his armor." Rinse, repeat. Again, the formula probably served the reciter well, but it makes for less-than-pleasant reading. With all the lineage recitation and all the deities interfering in warfare it was VERY MUCH like reading certain books of the Old Testament over and over. And over. And over. (And over).
So there's that. It's slow moving- which makes sense, I mean hey, this war had been going on for years and the principle actors were obviously feeling the inertia- but again, THE READING IT IS NOT FUN.
And then there's the war bits. This is the machoest book that ever was macho. Achilles is a bit YOU STOLE MY WOMAN, ME MOPE FOR WEEKS WHILE FRIENDS GET KILLED TO PROVE POINT, ME BIG MAN STAB STAB. Women are only here to serve as plot-points (Achilles needs a reason to bow out so some real fighting can happen, though one wonders: if he was actually such a warrior of kick-ass proportions capable of slaughtering dozens of men a day, why has this war been going on for ten years?), war chattel, and mourners. This isn't surprising- it's an ancient war epic and that's what women surrounding ancient wars did, but it certainly makes reading it as a woman a bit...unrelatable? The motivations of the characters are largely war glory, at the expense of their own lives and the lives of their friends and family. This is hard for me to wrap my brain around- the language of modern war is generally wrapped in defending one's borders (which makes the Trojans more sympathetic to me), protecting one's families, spreading democracy, etc. War for the sake of "glory everlasting" is hard to stomach.
I've read in a few places that Homer did this on purpose- machismo-ed the characters to the max in order to show that war for glory's sake is a negative, not a positive, but I didn't really get that (and I don't know how much sense that would make in reference to a time period where war was a career and honor was a thing people killed for). To whit, "Of men who have a sense of honor, more come through alive than are slain, but from those who flee comes neither glory nor any help."
I don't have much to say about this except that there are some DYNAMITE GEMS OF GENIUS here, but they can become buried in the boring, boring, repetitive and boring war scene formula. More than once I was lulled into a sort of reading trance, moving over words like "bronze spear" and "brains dashed" and descriptions of Achilles' slaughter, only to be stopped short by some brilliant metaphor or poignant line. Also, for such a violent and descriptive piece, there are some truly intimate and heartbreaking scenes. When Hector says goodbye to his wife and infant son, EGADS, THE HEART IT BREAKS. When Priam (the king of the Trojans) crawls on his knees to beg Achilles for Hector's body, see again: heart breaking. JUST READ THIS:
Honor the Gods, Achilles; pity him.
Think of your father; I'm more pitiful;
I've suffered what no other mortal has,
I've kissed the hand of the one who killed my children.
CAN YOU IMAGINE? I know it's very girly of me to be all "the war stuff, it is le boring, but the LOVE bits- oye, I REND MY GARMENTS," but there it is. I dig character-driven stuff, what can I say.
I've already prattled on a good bit, but I should add that fate and destiny are major themes here (including some interesting scenes when Zeus, the highest of high gods in the Greek pantheon, refuses [cannot?] act because he would be changing someone's fate). So there's WAR and HONOR and DESTINY and GRIEF and RAGE and lots of killing and mixed in there are soul-splitting scenes of individuals and small families. If you can slog it, I recommend slogging it- after all, it's not too far a stretch from Homer's glorification of war to Sir Walter Scott's romantic version of it, a version that Mark Twain ultimately blamed for the entirety of The Civil War. In the history of the portrayal of war in literature (a portrayal that has profound effects on reality), The Iliad is a vital starting point.
Five stars out of your mom. Yes, even though I hated reading it.