In 1997, the classical scholar Dana Burgess wrote the most available scholarly review of Stanley Lombardo's translation of the Iliad, and he had this to say about Lombardo's work:
[The translation is written in] language as simple and as colloquial as that heard in a check-out line.
This creates a dilemma for Burgess:
Lombardo's translation raises a serious question for Classicists about the tension between familiarity and distance. Do we sell Homer's world as no more alien from our own than the world of Lombardo's D-Day cover photo? Even a seventh century Ionian must have heard Homer's poetic language as highly artificial. Must we eliminate that experience of distance for our students, or do we need to create opportunities for them to appreciate artifice as artifice?
Maybe Burgess feels a special connection to D-Day, but as someone who never went to war I think of D-Day as an exotic and otherworldly time and place. War, regardless of the language, is distancing. And the Iliad, being close to the 3000 years old, is the more distancing still. Lombardo does us all a great favor in bridging that distance somewhat, but even his "check-out line" translation preserves for all non-classicist readers a tremendous sense of artifice, not to mention one of the greatest stories ever told.
1997 now seems an exotic world of its own. The Internet was in its toddlerhood, and a classicist could still dream about the days when university students were forced to learn Greek. Nowadays, the discipline of the Humanities itself seems ever more superfluous, as the world accelerates into a technological vortex of the here-and-now.
But there is still this stubborn insistence among some techies that there is such a thing as a "creative class," which will inherit the earth because they are the masters of content-- content which will be aggregated and make lots of money for Long Tail entrepreneurs. The existence, putative thought it may be, of the "creative class" means that the models of the great story-- the original content-- will be useful to preserve.
The Iliad is a war poem-- so much is the thesis of Jonathan Shay's groundbreaking book, Achilles in Vietnam. Shay reads the Iliad with the words of Vietnam veterans ringing in his ears (he is a psychiatrist who treated many such veterans), and he finds many parallels between the warriors at Troy and those who survived Vietnam.
But in Book 6, a picture of community and family emerges that puts the war in perspective. In this book, Homer gives us the royal family of Troy: father Priam, mother Hecuba, sons Hector and Paris, and their wives, Andromache and Helen, respectively. Even Hector's son Astyanax, a baby, makes an appearance. The portrait of three generations is so real-- so touching, tender, and yet everyday-- that the contrast between it, and the war that rages just outside the city walls, jars the reader terribly even as his or her heart rate slows with the break from the relentless killing.
Hector is the focal point of the episode. He comes in from battle, spattered with blood, sweat and dust, and meets his family members in turn: first, Hecuba, who encourages him to have a drink after a hard day at work. Then comes Paris, the original ESFP slacker; Paris lives in a world of profound psychic denial, unaware and unconcerned with the carnage he ensured when he gave Aphrodite the golden apple, and she gave him Helen, a well-connected Greek king's wife.
Then, with baby Astyanax ("beautiful as starlight") in tow, Andromache gives perhaps the most poignant speech in all of Greek Mythology. She is not a Trojan by birth, but a native of a nearby city that was sacked by the Greeks. Lombardo renders the speech this way:
Possessed is what you are, Hector.
Your courage is going to kill you.
And you have no feeling left for your little boy
or for me, the luckless woman who will soon be your widow.
It won't be long before the whole Greek army
swarms and kills you. And when they do,
It will be better for me to sink into the earth.
When I lose you, Hector, there will be nothing left.
No one to turn to, only pain...
Hector, you are my father, you are my mother,
you are my brother and my blossoming husband.
Hector, a good husband, says what he can:
Yes, Andromache. I worry about all this myself.
But my shame before the Trojans and their wives
with their long robes trailing, would be too terrible
if I hung back from battle like a coward.
And my heart won't let me. I have learned to be
one of the best, to fight in Troy's first ranks,
defending my father's honor and my own.
Deep in my heart I know too well
there will come a day when holy Ilion will perish...
What a pervasive sense of inevitability they both feel. It's not a matter of if, but of when they will be torn from each other's arms. And what an important word "learned" is. "I have learned to be one of the best," Hector says. Unlike Achilles, fighting and battle do not come as second nature to Hector. In Book I, Agamemnon had told Achilles:
You actually like fighting and war.
But Hector is not like Achilles. Hector knows the pleasures of a settled life, family, a civilized city. Achilles is handicapped emotionally. As the son of a goddess and a mortal man, he didn't grow up in a settled family. When Agamemnon insults him, his reaction is rage. In later books, the audience will find what happens when a human being chooses rage over forgiveness.
I don't think I mentioned that Susan Sarandon does the voiceovers for book summaries and other information. How did they get her to do it, and did she give them a discount? In any case, hearing her voice is a huge bonus in addition to the Iliad itself.