The Rage of Achilles–sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.
And so begins Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, the 2800year old epic poem of the Trojan war and a book that took me a near month to finish even though I could not put it down. Now, let’s get something clear here, I am not a Homeric scholar and only recently decided to take on this book since my interest in history and mythology is a slight nerdiness I posses and cherish.
Upon researching which translation to read I came across a right handful. There are tons of translations to choose but as I came across this translation by Stephen Mitchell, and the fact that I had thoroughly enjoyed his translation of Pablo Neruda’s poetry in his selected poems ‘Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon‘, I opened a random page in the bookstore and began to read (I had never read any of the Iliad before) and was automatically grabbed by the throat and pulled in, I purchased it and began my journey in to the world of Homer’s Iliad.
To me, this translation, from the others I had read in the bookstore, is perfect for people who want to be able to easily read the poem with out any cryptic poetic harshness associated with this work that has turned many away from trying to read and enjoy. If you are looking for an easy fast and modern day language translation then this is perfect and I do recommend it.
For anyone who has no knowledge of this book I’ll break it down in a nutshell. Basically it is a story of war, of invasion and brutality of the highest scale. The book begins with the leader of the Acheans Agamemnon arguing with one of his captains, Achilles, who fall out, leading Achilles to pull himself and his army out of the war between the Acheans and Trojans.
The war had previously been started when Paris, son of Priam (king of the Trojans) had taking Helen, who was the wife of Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, back to Troy leading the kings to gather an army and attack Troy, a war that rages on for 10 years and the book ends with the Trojan leader, Priam, begging for his son’s, Hector, dead body from Achilles who had previously killed him in retribution for Hector killing Achilles best friend, Patroclus.
And that’s basically it, the story of The Iliad. But, in-between all these stories is episodes of battles very clearly and graphically described you would need a hard stomach. Homer’s descriptions of killing is in such detail you can nearly feel it. For example, in book 11, here we have Agamemnon kill a charioteer called Oileus; Lord Agamemnon stabbed him between the eyes,/and the spear was not stopped by the heavy bronze of his helmet/ but tore right through it and through the bone, and his brains/ splattered inside the bronze, and he fell in to dust.
The book is full of this type of brutality (which the action I could not get enough of) and the poetry translated by Mitchell is at a fast pace, deliciously described and and soaked in horrifying images. Before I read it I thought Achilles featured more in the story than he actually does which is really only a small part, most of it sulking, but when he comes in to action it is exhilarating and breath taking poetic action (and slaughter).
The books of this story are not just about killing. The scenes with Hector and his wife Andromache, the meeting of Achilles and Priam, the games held for the funeral procession of Patroclus are all touching and mournful, beautifully written and brilliantly translated by Mitchell, that his translation is more contemporary and captures the current way that we use the English language, to think here we have contemporary poetry translation of an 8000 year old epic and it still can grip and smother the heart and mind of the reader is some achievement.
The problem of this translation and the debates I have seen in reviews and so on are the this translation is an abridgement, that this translation is based on the theories of the eminent British scholar M. L. West who brought fourth the theory that some of the Iliad is not the true original and some of the lines and books have been added over time, has led Mitchell to follow these theories and omit some passages, lines and a whole book, book 10, has brought it’s fair share of criticism and debate.
Now, because I have not read any other translations and can not really give my opinion other than who is to say what the original really is as not much is known about homer, about the first draft and how this story developed and from whom it originated, I think the whole debate is dismissible since solid facts remain unseen but we will leave this up to the experts.
To me, though I understand Mitchell omitting what he did, I really wish he still would have translated what he had omitted, the lines, passages and book 10, and added it at the back of the book just for readers like myself, and let us decide plus also enjoy what has been taking out.
Other than this, I recommend this book to anyone wanting just a great read of adventure, of Gods, of heroes, villains, war, butchery, love, family, desire and total mayhem, forget about the words poetry, epic, ancient, classic, and think of it just as an enjoyable exciting and gripping story and you will thoroughly enjoy this book.
Mitchell is apparently now writing his translation of The Odyssey which I will now wait patiently and excitingly to read, and when I have finished, I will choose most of the other translations, Fagles, Lombardo, Butler, Fitzgerald, Chapman and Pope and once again dive in to the Iliad and compare to Mitchell but most of all enjoy this brilliant classic again and again.
Where To Find It?
About The Author
Stephen Mitchell is widely known for his ability to make ancient masterpieces thrillingly new, to step in where many have tried before and to create versions that are definitive for our time. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, The Book of Job, Bhagavad Gita, and The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. His web site is www.stephenmitchellbooks.com.