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Reading The Iliad with Alex and Andrew

With the help of Wes Callihan and his Epics series my sons, Alex and Andrew, and I are reading The Iliad this term. I have read The Iliad before, honest injun, but for most of my children I have just assigned it as reading during their year in King’s Meadow Antiquities. I thought I would enjoy reading The Iliad out loud with these, my last two boys, and learning along with them this year. I fully expect it to inform each of us in different ways. In other words, I will not be teaching The Iliad so much as I will be learning it.

Andrew is in 11th grade and Alex is in 8th. We are reading a book or a half a book per school day and we are using Fagles translation. I read the Richmond Lattimore translation last time around.

Today we are finishing up Book 5. So far there have been several key events that have captured our imaginations and we have enjoyed sharing those moments. The first and perhaps funniest was the horror Alex found in Achilles whining to his mother, Thetis. I did not realize how much of an impression this made until Alex brought me his narration for the day in the form of a rap chant in which he rhymed Helen with “rebellin’” and mentioned Achilles whining. I went ahead and said the rap chant could stand for a narration because after all our word for the school year is “jollification.”

While Book 2 is often considered a bit boring with its long lists of ships, we each found something to our liking. We all got a kick out of Agamemnon ‘testing’ his armies after his false dream by telling them it was time to go home. We were not as surprised as he was to find his men fleeing to their ships.

One of the key standouts in The Iliad is the vivid descriptions. In Book 2 the description of the rebel Thersites railing against Agamemnon is truly comical: “Here was the ugliest man who ever came to Troy. . Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, both shoulders humped together, curving over his caved-in chest…” This continues for several more lines. Later when Odysseus hits him the “rascal….stunned with pain…blinking like an idiot.” Echoes of Shakespeare from Fagles or original to the Greeks? I do not know. This time around I am most surprised by the humor of this ancient book. Sometimes it could almost be called slapstick.

In Books 4 and 5 we find equally lucid descriptions of wounds and injuries which the boys seem to like. I had a little trouble getting through the scene where they drag Sarpedon off the field of battle with a spear through his thigh, not stopping to take it out but dragging it with him, “razoring into flesh and scraping bone.” I got queasy. I am not usually bothered by dark themes but this one left me almost feeling the shaft in my own thigh. The battle scenes in The Iliad seem to come from real live battles with real blood and real guts accurately, almost medically, described. For some people in my family this is a selling point.

Finally one more description captured Andrew’s attention. Hera’s chariot might have been rolling out of the ‘Hood. “…paired wheels with their eight spokes all bronze…and round them running rims of bronze clamped fast…The silver hubs spin round on either side….” The description of the chariot left Andrew, his own 1998 Honda in our driveway struggling to pass inspection, drooling.

The following scene with Athena mounting the chariot left me with no doubt that the Greeks did not underestimate or devalue women. At least not all of them.

I do not have time here to discuss the pathos and humanity we see in the Greeks cataloging the entire Argive fleet or the equally moving scene of Helen looking out on old friends while talking to new ones on the walls of Troy.

Scene after scene captured our attention and left behind something for each of us to ponder during those times when the busyness of life ceases and we are left to our own thoughts. Alex may ponder how to turn the story into his own words with wit, Andrew the glories of a new car, while you might just find me wondering how to face the future like the warrior woman Pallas Athene.

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