War, Homer teaches us, is the engine of epic: a flow of blood and bone, indifferent to gender, spreading its agony and valor communally, like a feast or a pandemic. War implores us to suspend disbelief in gods and goddesses so as to immerse ourselves in tales of their faulty judgment, cruelties imposed on mortal pawns. War, then, is both human and divine, invoking a language of grandeur that pits warrior against warrior, posed like figures in a David painting.
Until now. There’s nothing stiff or cool about Emily Wilson’s stirring translation of “The Iliad,” which whips and crackles beneath the familiar meter of loose iambic pentameter. Wilson tells it all in plain English, to elegant effect. As with her celebrated “The Odyssey” (2017), she deftly coaxes the original’s Dactylic hexameters into our own accentual tongue. We feel her joy, birthed by hard labor. A hefty Introduction lays out her methodology for this “linguistic mishmash”: “Whenever I hear blustering winds and rainstorms, surging rivers or choppy seas, when I watch a flock of geese or a swooping hawk…I know I am inside the world of Homeric similes.” Her process consisted of false starts and furious internal debates, but in the end she opted for cadences that would invite us to read “The Iliad” aloud, “honoring the oral heritage of the original.” The immediacy of her translation resurrects scenes and characters half-remembered from Western Civ class. Names and genealogies — so many! — percolate throughout the poem, but thanks to Wilson’s shortened iambic lines they never pile up or strain our attention.
And just like that, we’re huddled among the Greeks, their ships moored along beaches, Troy’s citadel looming across a plain. Nine years in, the war has stalled, and rifts threaten the coalition built by Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, has been abducted by Paris, the “pretty” son of Troy’s King Priam. Agamemnon “disrespects” the fleet-footed fighter, Achilles, by poaching his concubine, Chryseis, a confrontation that launches the “The Iliad.” (Wilson’s matter-of-fact voice serves to underscore the plight of women; the Olympian goddesses have far more agency.) The army is poised to return home, Helen-less — previous translations use the verb “sail” — but Wilson injects a hint of celestial interference into Achilles’ tirade: “‘we will be forced to swivel around.’” The stakes are high, requiring a complex verb construction. This is no pleasure excursion.
When compared to other popular translations — Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 edition, say, or Robert Fagles’s 1990 version — Wilson’s vibes with contemporary irony and idioms: “The Iliad” for millennials and Zoomers. As the Greek warrior Diomedes ducks an enemy’s spear, he “kept his cool.” Hector, exhausted from a day’s battle, takes a break inside Troy, where his mother, Hecuba, deadpans: “‘pour out libations/for all the gods, especially father Zeus,/and after that, you need to have a drink.’” Heroes deserve a cocktail hour, like everyone else. By contrast Fitzgerald translates Hecuba’s advice as “slake your thirst” and Fagles goes with “refresh yourself, if you’d like to quench your thirst.” In Book 7, when Menelaus rashly accepts Hector’s challenge to a duel, Agamemnon knocks sense into him: “Stop! You are acting crazy, Menelaus!” (I recalled my teenagers’ eye-rolled pronouncements, “Dad, you are cray-cray!”) Fitzgerald translates Agamemnon’s rebuke as “You’ve lost your head,/my lord,” conjuring a guillotine, while Fagles echoes Hamlet: “You’re mad, my Prince!”
Occasionally, Wilson allows herself a little fun with archaic inflections. When the Trojans breach the camp’s defensive wall, Asius, a charioteer, drives his team forward: “The spear of splendid Idomeneus,/Deucalion’s fine son, would bring him down,/and shadow him with death that dims men’s names.” That final line, and particularly its spondee — two stressed beats — add a baroque twist.
“The Iliad” is also a field guide to modernism, pioneering techniques millennia before Joyce. What’s old is new: Identities are fluid among mortals and immortals alike; fixed binaries are vanishingly rare; male musk mingles with female perfumes. Perspective is complex, from the dust and sweat of combat to Hecuba’s hushed chambers. Wilson captures, in clean transitions, a roving point of view, shifting from third-person omniscience to a vocative second-person, addressing the Muses, and even a flash-forward that reveals the outcome of the war. The first-person pronoun unexpectedly slips into Book 12 — blink and you’ll miss it — introducing the idea of an unreliable narrator. Homer grafts past episodes onto the foreground story, as in Phoenix’s account of the hunt for the Calydonian boar: Myths open onto more myths, a glittering chain of mythmaking. Again, this all ripples outward from Wilson’s taut lines and smart choices.
Sulking in his tent offstage for the majority of the poem, Achilles rouses in the wake of Patroclus’ slaughter, bearing down on his friend’s killer. Wilson’s clipped syntax and enjambments dial up the velocity. (She titles Book 22 “A Race to Death,” a nod to her strategy.) Achilles shows no mercy when Hector, dying, pleads for his body to be returned to his parents; the Greek hero sneers, “‘I would carve up your flesh and eat it raw,/for the abominations you have done me.”
And yet, as “The Iliad” thunders to its conclusion, there’s a note of grace amid the grief, a hard-won wisdom — how modern is that? With both Homeric epics Wilson has pulled off a thrilling achievement, framing ancient questions in a fresh light. Or to quote the 1969 Vietnam-era anthem: “War, what’s it good for?”
by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Norton, 848 pp., $39.95
Hamilton Cain is a book critic and the author of a memoir, “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.”