Picks and Pans Review: The Iliad

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Translated by Robert Fagles

If every plot ever conceived, every screenplay ever written can be traced to the Iliad, then Fagles's powerful new translation should be sent to Schwarzenegger. This is a plain-speaking version, fully comfortable with blood and violence, that pulls the reader forward with a deadly magnetism.

Homer's epic begins 10 years into the battle waged by the Greeks against Troy-current residence of Helen, the reckless beauty who set the war in motion by running off with Paris. For such a petty prize, a city will crumble, thousands will die.

It is Homer's genius, in this poem that reaches across some 2,700 years, to take "the work of killing" (as Bernard Knox calls it in his introduction) and find not only its futility but its humanity and nobility. Often the three combine, as in Fagles's colloquial yet moving translation of the Trojan warrior Hector's battlefield realization: " 'So now I meet my doom. Well, let me die—/ but not without struggle, not without glory, no,/ in some great clash of arms that even men to come/ will hear of down the years!' "

That clash comes with a warrior who, despite his epic tantrums, is even more resigned to mortality. Translating Achilles" battlefield admonition to Lycaon, son of the Trojan King Priam (and brother of both Paris and Hector), Fagles finds sadness in his scorn: "Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?/ Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you/ And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?/ The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life/ a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you/ death and the strong force of fate are waiting."

The passage demonstrates how well Fagles compares with other popular modern translators. He's less clunky than, for instance, Richmond Lattimore (1951)—"So, friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?/ Patroklos also is dead, who was better by far than you are." He's more direct than Robert Fitzgerald (1974)—"Come, friend, face your death, you too./ And why are you so piteous about it?/ Patroklos died, and he was a finer man/ by far than you."

Knox's informative, comprehensible introduction may also entice readers who haven't hit Homer since high school. With Hamlet on the big screen and an 11-hour Civil War history conquering the small, the notion of a new audience for the Iliad may not be so outlandish. (Viking, $35)

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