Men at war

Homer's Iliad has never been more relevant

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Reimagining a classic" - as they say in Hollywood - is something that only a foolhardy or enormously talented artist would attempt. That's doubly true when it comes to a work like Homer's Iliad, an epic that has inspired readers for thousands of years. The imagery that bursts from this violent, heroic poem paints a picture of the human condition that has not changed in three millenniums.

Few have interpreted humankind as accurately as Homer. Consider these lines in book 9:

Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding,
tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions.
But a man's life breath cannot come back again -
no raiders in force, no trading brings it back,
once it slips through a man's clenched teeth.

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That this speech comes from the warrior Achilles is a remarkable bit of writing. Godlike even when he skulks in his tent after being insulted by Agamemnon, this personification of violence and retribution understands a basic truth of humanity - whether the death is of a soldier or civilian.

A lesser writer would have turned this overwhelming character into a one-dimensional figure. It might be too much to ask any writer to cover this same ground. It's fortunate then that British poet Christopher Logue took up the challenge. Logue has been working on The Iliad since the 1960s and has turned out four excerpts, the latest being "All Day Permanent Red."

Covering the events that occurred before Achilles rejoins the Greeks, Logue's latest excerpt from his work in progress draws heavily from Books 5 and 6. Throwing caution to the wind, Logue doesn't simply reimagine scenes from The Iliad, he invents new ones and infuses those familiar to us with a new spirit. And he manages this extraordinary feat without treading on the legacy of Homer.

Take, for example, his reinterpretation of the scene of battle:

Drums in the dust. Inside its mid-ridge overcast
Flags tossing above agitated forms.
Chylabborak, holding the centre firm.
Blurred bronze. Blood? Blood like a car-wash:
'But it keeps the dust down.'

Bronze Age combat was a brutal thing. It's not Hollywood's version of bloodless swords scything through men effortlessly. Death could take days, and the amount of blood covering a battlefield must have been appalling. In just five lines, Logue's description of Knox's "hideous suffering of the victim" won't easily be forgotten.

In another scene, he captures the essence of the meddling gods that are ever present in The Iliad.

In Logue's version, they take a less active part in the war, but their presence is never far away. On the eve of battle, Odysseus prays to Athena for strength:

Brainchild Athena, Holy Girl,
As one you made
As calm and cool as water in a well.
I know that you have cares enough
Other than those of me and mine.
Yet, Daughter of God, without your help
We cannot last.

Setting down her topaz saucer heaped with nectarine jelly
Emptying her blood-red mouth set in her ice-white face
Teenaged Athena jumped up and shrieked:
"Kill! Kill for me!
Better to die than to live without killing!"

Who says prayer does no good?

The gods of the Greeks were no less mercurial than the humans they oversaw. Though she is the goddess of wisdom and the patron of skill in human relations, Homer's Athena is often filled with a thirst for blood, especially when her favored Odysseus was in need. Casting Athena as a tempestuous teenager captures the personalities of all the gods and paints a vivid picture of their unholy rages and demands.

"All Day Permanent Red" isn't for traditionalists, those offended by wholesale changes to a familiar text. Decrying Logue's modern references and seemingly capricious additions and subtractions, however, would miss his remarkable achievement. This Iliad is modern but it's still recognizable. Logue's accomplishment shows a true appreciation for The Iliad. Rather than competing with Homer, he highlights the elements we are familiar with and those we sometimes overlook. His slashing sentences and striking imagery combine to tell the same story Homer told - a tale of human values set against the backdrop of war.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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