“… the flash of bronze, fighters killing, fighters killed …”

Just picked up the Iliad today after long absence–it’s a good book to turn to when I find myself growing impatient with all the other options at hand, and especially when I find myself growing impatient with the prose of all the other options at hand. Because Homer crafts words like no one’s business, at least if Fagles’ translation is reasonably true to them.

Before I set the Iliad aside, I’d just finished Book 11, which Fagles titles “Agamemnon’s Day of Glory.” In Book 11, the Greeks, having just finished a successful bout of spying and raiding horses, wake up ready for battle. Or maybe that’s justZeus (aka, The Only God Allowed to Interfere With this War, Except When He Isn’t Looking) riling them up:

But Zeus flung Strife on Achaea’s fast ships,
the brutal goddess flaring his storm-shield,
his monstrous sign of war in both her fists.
She stood on Odysseus’ huge black-bellied hull …
There Strife took her stand, raising her high-pitched cry,
great and terrible, lashing the fighting fury
in each Achaean’s heart–no stopping them now,
mad for war and struggle.

Agamemnon armors up (in great detail) and, his men–all thoughts of returning home gone–follow him. Athena and Hera cheer the Greeks on with some thunder, but otherwise manage to not interfere.

Hector leads Trojans out, too, in less detail but with arguably more powerful prose:

Hector bore his round shield in the forefront, blazing out
like the Dog Star through the clouds, all withering fire,
then plunging back in the cloud-rack massed and dark–
so Hector ranged on, now flaring along the front,
now shouting his order back toward the rear,
all of him armed in bronze aflash like lightning

The armies fight. A lot.

… the pressure of combat locked them head to head,
lunging liker wolves, and Strife with wild groans
exulted to see them, glaring down at the melee,
Strife alone of immortals hovering over the fighters.

Strife’s getting into this, no surprise. Zeus is having fun watching, too. The other gods are, one assumes, silently glaring at Zeus.

So Agamemnon kills many people. In great detail. This being his day of glory and all.

Think how a lion, mauling the soft weak young
of a running deer, clamped in his massive jaws,
cracks their backbones with a snap–he’s stormed in,
invading the lair to tear their tender hearts out
and the mother doe, even if she’s close by,
what can she do to save her fawns?

I can’t honestly tell if we’re supposed to admire Agamemnon here or not.

Even as the Trojans fall, Zeus keeps Hector safe. Eventually he also sends Hector an IM (Iris Message, thank you Rick Riordan) telling Hector to stay out of Agamemnon’s way until the latter gets wounded.

Finally Agamemnon goes up against a guy named Iphidamas, and kills him in great detail. Iphidamas has an older brother, Coon, who goes after Agamemnon in turn, and Coon gets Agamemnon with his spear, just below the elbow and all down the forearm. Coon then tries to drag his little brother’s body away, but Agamemnon lops Coon’s head off, and it tumbles down onto Iphidamas’ corpse.

Okay, so much for the admiration for Agamemnon.

But Agamemnon soon discovers that being injured hurts, and he races off the field. Hector, who was paying attention with Iris delivered that message, sees his opportunity and jumps into the battle. Agamemnon is long gone, but Hector goes on to kill many men in a reasonable amount of detail himself, leaving the reader wondering why this can’t be Hector’s Day of Glory, too. Hector even charges Diomedes, and Diomedes sends a well-aimed spear straight for Hector’s head. It’s a can’t-possibly-miss shot, but Hector’s wearing a can’t-possibly-be-hit helmet from Apollo, and apparently an immovable object is more powerful than an irresistible force after all. The blow glances off; Diomedes cusses a bit and stalks off looking for other people to kill. Diomedes is also having a Day of Glory, as it turns out, but this being Diomedes and all, that’s hardly worth commenting on.

Paris shoots and gets Diomedes with an arrow in the foot, crows about how much he rocks for it, and is soundly mocked for shooting like a girl. Anyone could get someone in the foot, after all, right? (Achilles, are you listening? Achilles? But Achilles is still nursing his anger back in his tent, and I still can’t entirely blame him for it.)

Paris shows them later, though, when he manages a shoulder shot and injures Machaon, a Greek healer. While Nestor gets Machaon away in Nestor’s chariot, the reader is left wondering why the Greeks would put their healers right out on the battlefield, not as field medics, but as fighters themselves, rather than doing their best to protect them so that they can, well, heal. It sounds like the Greeks might have been having some second thoughts about this strategy themselves, as one of them admits, “a good healer is worth a troop of other men.” Oops.

Achilles, who as far as I can tell actually does care about his fellow Greeks even if he’s unwilling to fight alongside them, sees Nestor heading into camp, and sends Patroclus over to see who’s been hurt.

Nestor, being Nestor, urges Patroclus in great detail and at great length and with much reminiscing about the past to urge Achilles to get his butt back out on the battlefield.

Nestor: “Or if that fails, Patroclus, you could just wear Achilles armor and lead his Myrmidons into battle.”
Patroclus: “…”
Reader: “Wait, that was Nestor’s idea?”

Yet even as I stared open-jawed at Nestor, the narrative made me understand, for the first time, just what a hard place Patroclus was in, and why Nestor’s suggestion was so tempting. Because as Patroclus heads back to Achilles’ tent, bearing Nestor’s pleas, he meets an injured fighter, Euryplus, limping away from the battle with an arrow in his thigh, blood yet flowing around it.

And moved at the sight, the good soldier Patroclus
burst out in grief with a flight of winging words,
“Poor men! Lords of the Argives, O my captains!
How doomed you are, look–far from your loved ones
and native land–to glut with your shining fat
the wild dogs of battle here in Troy …
But come, tell me, Eurypylus, royal fighter,
can the Achaeans, somehow, still hold monstrous Hector?–
or must they all die now, beaten down by his spear?”
Struggling with his wound, Euryplus answered,
“No hope, Patroclus, Prince. No bulward left,
They’ll all be hurled back to the black ships …

“Impossible, Eurypylus, hero, what shall we do?
I am on my way with a message for Achilles,
our great man of war–the plan that Nestor,
Achaea’s watch and ward, urged me to report.
But I won’t neglect you, even so, with such a wound.”

And bracing the captain, arm around his waist,
he helped him toward his shelter. An aide saw them
and put some oxhides down. Patroclus stretched him out,
knelt with a knife and cut the sharp, stabbing arrow
out of Euryplus’ thigh and washed the wound clean
of the dark running blood with clear warm water.
Pounding it in his palms, he crushed a bitter root
and covered over the gash to kill his comrade’s pain,
a cure that fought of every kind of pain …
and the wound dried and the flowing blood stopped.

And even if we didn’t know it before, we know, in this moment, that Patroclus is doomed.

Because of course he’s going to wear Achilles’ armor. What else could he possibly do?

“… a thousand fires blazing against the walls of Troy/and the shrill of pipes and flutes …”

At the start of book 10 of the Iliad, Agamemnon can’t sleep. Possibly he’s a bit freaked out by his men’s conviction that of course they’re going to kick butt, so long as Agamemnon is leading them. Then again, it could be those thousand Trojan fires burning out there, too. Or the fact that he’s convinced Zeus has taken Hector’s side, and that that–rather than his own poor leadership skills–are to blame for their losses. (As it turns out, he’s right. But even so.)

Menelaus can’t sleep either, what with the guilt about so many men having crossed the sea to fight a war on his account and all. One imagines he’s been having a lot of sleepless nights, all told.

ANyway, Agamemnon and Menelaus agree that what’s called for now is stealth, guile, and a few men stupid daring enough to go out and do some serious spywork.

It will surprise no one whatsoever that when Nestor (who seemed to be sleeping just fine until Agamemnon woke him up) asks for volunteers, Diomedes says, “I’m up for that.”

Diomedes is allowed to choose one spying companion. He proves he’s not quite as foolish as he seems when he goes right for Odysseus. They say some prayers to Athena and head out.

All the Greeks seem to be wearing lion and leopard pelts at this point, by the way. Not sure why this first came up here in book 10, but it did.

Anyway Hector, who apparently also can’t sleep, puts out a call for spies among the Trojans, too. A guy named Dolon volunteers.

(Break for thoughts of Spy vs. Spy. Only, you know. With bronze-age battle armor.)

Dolon, alas, is only wearing a wolf pelt, and besides, he didn’t get to choose a spy buddy. So of course Diomedes and Odysseus capture him almost immediately.

Dolon: “I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t kill me!”
Odysseus: “Okay, spill.”
Dolon tells them everything. In great detail.
Diomedes kills him.

Explain to me again why Hector dies, but Diomedes (“the man who fights the gods does not live long “) survives to the end of the book?

Anyway, everything included the location of some brand new king who’s come to help the Trojans out and has some really nice horses with him. Diomedes and Odysseus go raiding. Athena breathes fury into Diomedes. Apparently Zeus is sleeping just fine, too, because he doesn’t stop Athena, even though breathing fury into someone seems to go directly against his new no-one-helps-the-mortals-out-but-me rule.

Diomedes and Odysseus kill the king. They steal the horses. They run back home before Apollo–who’s apparently awake, if less alert than Athena–can rouse some Trojans to run after them. All the Greeks are impressed by the new horses.

Nestor: “Surely Athena is on your side!”
Odysseus: “No, no, it’s no big deal, really. The gods are so powerful–if they were helping us out, we’d have even better horses. We just found out about these from some spy.”

Well, to be fair, Athena didn’t breathe battle fury into him.

Even so, after a bath and some time in the hot tub, Odysseus joins Diomedes in offering the goddess some honeyed wine. Perhaps because when it comes to the gods, even though you can’t win, it’s still best not to take any chances.

“If I voyage back … my pride, my glory dies … but the life that’s left me will be long.”

So in book 8 of the Iliad, the Trojans finally began kicking some serious Greek butt. In book 9, the Greek response to this is … pure, blind, raging panic.

Maybe they’re not used to losing? Even Agamemnon, who until now seemed to have his entire being set on autopilot for “die, Trojans, die!” begins wondering of Zeus really meant all those promises of victory:

“… So come, follow my orders. Obey me, all you Argives.
Cut and run! Sail home to the fatherland we love!
We’ll never take the broad streets of Troy.”

Reader: “Who are you and what have you done with Agamemnon?”

The Greeks stare at their commander in stunned silence, too. Or maybe they’re just remembering that things didn’t go so well the last time Agamemnon suggested going home. (In Agamemnon’s defense, that story about the boy who cried wolf wouldn’t be written for several centuries yet.)

Anyway, Diomedes, who presumably doesn’t know Athena has left the battlefield, and that there’ll be no more glowy awesome war magic for him for the duration, is the first to tell Agamemnon that hell no, he’s not going anywhere, and he shames the others into agreeing. (More successful goading!)

Nestor chimes in as well, pointing out that maybe they made a small mistake in alienating Achilles back in book 1, because a guy like him would be pretty useful right about now. Agamemnon (or rather, the character with whom Homer replaced Agamemnon when the reader wasn’t looking) readily agrees, and sends an embassy of his best fighters to beg Achilles to come back, and to offer a fairly impressive list of gifts if he does.

Achilles is hanging out playing his lyre, and for some reason I respect him more for this than I respected Paris for rolling around with Helen when his men were fighting. (Okay, the slashers might claim that Achilles is engaged in pretty similar activities himself, but as far as I can tell, Patroclus is just there to handle the cooking.)

Achilles welcomes the Greeks–his friends, Odysseus and Ajax and others–and, no surprise here, Achilles says, sorry, still too angry at Agamemnon to even consider backing down. He says a bunch of other things, too, and I respect him more than I expected for them, too–for pointing out that, you know, he’s been doing all the heavy lifting for none of the glory; and, also, that his mother told him long ago that he could have fame or long life, and long life is beginning to sound pretty good.

He also says something you just know the Greeks have all been thinking:

Why must we battle Trojans,
men of Argos? Why did he muster an army, lead us here,
that son of Atreus? Why, why in the world if not
for Helen with her loose and lustrous hair?
Are they the only men who love their wives,
those sons of Atreus?

Achilles begins to lose me when he goes on to explain that even if he captured Briseis and forced her to his tent at spearpoint, he really, truly loved her, but otherwise, he has a point.

Of course, so does Achilles’ old charioteer, Phoenix when he points out that a) even the gods know how to change their minds (not that we’ve seen much evidence of this yet) and b) it’d probably be better to join the battle now rather than waiting until the Trojans are torching their ships, because at that point Achilles will have no choice but to fight, only by then probably all the shiny war gifts will no longer be on the table.

Achilles tells Patroclus to make Phoenix’s bed up in hopes this will give his visitors a hint that it’s Getting Late and they should Leave Already, and possibly also because this will stop Phoenix from talking good sense at him. He also talks a bit about maybe he’ll just gather up his men and sail for home in the morning. Which, to be fair, would be another way of avoiding the whole torched ships thing.

Odysseus and Ajax and the rest report back that Achilles is still a no-go. Once again, the men stare in stunned silence, and once again Diomedes breaks it, saying forget Achilles, so long as Agamemnon leads them, they can fight without him, right? Right!

Oddly enough, the men all roar their assent.

“But the day will come when Father, well I know, calls me his darling gray-eyed girl again.”

So in book 8, Zeus comes up with a brilliant plan for ending the war. And the plan is: “Let’s not anyone interfere anymore. Except for me.

He threatens to hurt any other god who interferes, and hurt them good. The gods, who don’t really much fancy being fried by lightning bolts and hurled down to Tartarus quickly agree this is a most excellent plan.

Athena: “Can we at least, like, offer them advice down there?”
Zeus: “Don’t take things so seriously. Of course I would never hurt you my darling girl.”

Zeus heads into the battle. The Trojans (by which we mostly mean, Hector), who were previously getting their butts kicked, start kicking butt instead.

Hera, none too pleased to see her Greeks hurting (and still remembering that business where the golden apple went to someone other than her, presumably), goes looking for help.

Hera: “Poseidon, are you going to stand for this?”
Poseidon: “Pretty much, yeah.”

More Greeks die. Hera tries again.

Hera: “Athena, are you going to stand for this?”
Athena: “Hell, no! Let’s harness up the chariot and get down there!”

Finally, finally, someone tries to goad someone else and it actually works. And the saga reader in the audience cheers.

Alas, Zeus notices what’s going on before Hera and Athena even make it out the gates. He sends Iris to meet them there with a message:

I’ll maim their racers for them,
right beneath their yokes, and those two goddesses,
I’ll hurl them from their chariot, smash their car,
and not once in the course of ten slow wheeling years
will they heal the wounds my lightning bolt rips open.
So that gray-eyed girl of mine might learn what it means
to fight against her Father.

Guess he’s willing to hurt her after all. (Hera, not so much–Zeus goes on to explain in his message that he expects as much from Hera, because his wife always argues with him. “If I say it’s black, she says it’s white, so what can you do, etc.”)

Hera (who, did we mention, successfully goaded Athena into this fight) now declares she can’t let Athena do this, and they turn right back for home.

There’s one other minor bit that delighted me in book 8–as Hector is urging his horses on, we learn that Andromache is a serious horse girl:

And with that threat he called out to his horses,
“Golden and Whitefoot, Blaze and Silver Flash!
Now repay me for all the loving care Andromache,
generous Eetion’s daughter, showered on you aplenty.
First of the teams she gave you honey-hearted wheat,
she even mixed it with wine for you to drink
when the spirit moved her–before she’s serve
though I’m proud to say I am her loving husband.

In Iliad fandom? I totally ship Andromache and Hector.

More Greek gods

I got distracted from my Iliad reading by Anne Ursu’s The Immortal Flame, last book of The Cronus Chronicles. Finishing that series and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians in the past few months has, not surprisingly, bounced off my reading of the Iliad in interesting ways.

Ursu and Riordan both start from the basic principle that the Greek gods are at once real and deeply flawed, and that the whole system is pretty much in need of fixing. Both assume, too, that in the end you can’t defeat or get rid of these flawed gods, not really, because they’re just too powerful. What you can do is try to make the sort of bargains that fix things a little and maybe keep that power somewhat in check. Because if nothing else, the gods do keep their promises.

Anyway, I realized, as I was finishing The Immortal Flame today, that the interesting question to ask about the Greek gods is not, “Are they any better than us?”

The interesting question is, “Are we any better than them?”

It’s a question the ending of both Riordan and Ursu’s series depend on.

I suspect it’s also the question that made Hector and Andromache so appealing to me, when I first saw them together.

I wonder whether it’s a question the Greeks asked, too, and if not, at what point it began getting asked.

Book 7 …

I went in to catch up on book 7 of The Iliad, only to find I have far less to say about it than book 6. Hector and Paris storm into the fray, and Paris actually takes down a man. Athena, seeing that her Greeks are actually losing, storms down, meaning to help them out. Apollo intercepts her with a plan: we can stop this fighting entirely if we just make Hector challenge someone to single combat. (Because, I guess, single combat did such a good job of halting the war the first time around.) Athena agrees and, speaking through Helenus, urges Hector to action. Hector strides right into the no-man’s-land-between the armies and issues his challenge.

Crickets chirp. The Greeks all kind of look at each other, hoping someone else will throw his life away for the cause.

Finally Menelaus rolls his eyes and says, “Fine, I’ll fight him!”

At which point Agamemnon says, “Don’t be an idiot, he’ll kill you!” and suddenly all the other Greeks, eager to cover up their cowardice, tumble over one another in their enthusiasm to jump in and fight Hector instead. Lots are drawn. Great Ajax wins. Hector does some quaking of his own.

They hack at each other for a while. Then Zeus sends men from both sides to break things up, convince the men that it’s getting dark, why not stop until tomorrow? Ajax says, “Hey, he’s losing, make him call the truce.” Hector, who is indeed losing says, “Okay, okay, I ask for a truce.” And they stop fighting and agree to go bury their dead. The Greeks decide that while they’re at it dead, maybe they’ll put up a few extra trenches and walls and other defenses. Making one think maybe the Trojans weren’t faring all that badly after all.

Back in Troy, the Trojans seem to think otherwise. A Trojan, Antenor, makes a suggestion: let’s just give those Greeks Helen and all her treasure and tell them to get out of here. Paris, not surprisingly, disagrees. Well, mostly disagrees: they can have the treasure, sure, but Helen, no way.

A herald, Idaeus, delivers Paris’ halfway offer to the Greeks:

Priam and noble Trojans command me to report,
if it proves acceptable, pleasing to one and all,
the offer of Paris who caused are long and hard campaign.
All the treasures that filled his hollow ships
and the prince hauled home to Troy–
would to god he’d drowned before that day!–
he’ll return them all and add from his own stores.
But the lawful wife of Menelaus, renowned Menelaus,
he will not give her up, Paris makes that clear,
though all Troy commands him to do precisely that.

Is it just me, or does Idaeus sound none-too-pleased with Paris himself? Is there anyone in Troy who isn’t fed up with Paris?

If Paris lived today, I like to think his family would have staged an intervention by now.

“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.”

In book 6 Hector’s brother Helenus, the “best of the seers who scan the flight of birds,” sends Hector back to Troy so that he can tell the women to mount some serious prayers to Athena, see if she won’t call off her boy Diomedes. Helenus gives reasonably detailed instructions as to what’s to be sacrificed: the loveliest robe the women can find, plus the promise of twelve yearling heifers, never broken, to be added in to sweeten the deal later.

As everyone who reads folklore knows, you don’t ignore your seers. Hector pushes his way through the battle and back to the city. Hector’s mother and the other Trojan women also know that you don’t ignore your seers. They get that robe, head straight to Athena’s shrine, and start praying.

It doesn’t work.

To which I go, what? Yet this isn’t the first time the Iliad has messed with my folkloric expectations. Folklore also tells me that one ignores dreams, especially dreams sent by the gods, at one’s peril–yet in the Iliad, the gods will send false dreams, all to get the dreamers to do things not in their best interests, and to do them while thinking they’re listening to the gods. In short, any sensible folklore or fairy tale rule you follow has even odds of working–or not–and there’s no way you can know. May as well flip a coin, except if it really is the gods urging you on and you ignore them, then you’re in extra trouble.

So the women pray and Athena ignores them, and Hector goes to hunt down Paris. Paris is still in his rooms, polishing his armor now, and he cheerfully tells Hector that no, really, he was just getting around to heading out to the battlefield, that Helen’s urging him to actually fight was finally having some effect, go on ahead and he’ll catch up with Hector any moment now.

(Helen, meet Hallgerður and Guðrún. They’d like to have a few words with you about the art of effective goading.)

Helen’s words seem filled with equal parts self-loathing and Paris-loathing. Hector, after a stanza or so, leaves them both and goes off to look for his own wife, Andromache.

And then my cynicism drops away, because what follows is genuinely moving.

Andromache and his infant son and his son’s nurse are by the city walls, where Andromache is distraught at the thought of losing Hector in battle. And the affection between them–the deep and real fear each has of losing the other, or seeing the other suffer–just feels so real, and so human, that it’s … I’m not sure heartbreaking is quite the right word, but something like that. The affection Hector has for his son feels just as real.

… shining Hector reached down
for his son–but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror–
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless fods:
“Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’–
when he comes from battle bearing the bloody gear
of the mortal enemy he has killed in war–
a joy to his mother’s heart.”
So Hector prayed
and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife.
Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast,
smiling through her tears. Her husband noticed,
and filled with pity now, Hector stroked her gently,
trying to reassure her, repeating her name: “Andromache,
dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you–
it’s born with us the day we are born.
So please go home and tend to your own tasks,
the distaff and the loom, and keep the women
working hard as well. As for the fighting,
men will see to that, all who were born in Troy
but I most of all.”

We’re still in a world where men and women each have their own work, but this is such a far cry from Zeus telling Aphrodite not to trouble her pretty little head about battle that it’s not even in the same universe.

The gods can have their power and their capricious ways. I’ll take these doomed mortals–because we know, even as we read, that Hector, Andromache, and their son are all doomed–over the deathless gods any day.

Hector and Andromache part, slowly, with many glances back. As Hector lingers by the walls, Paris catches up with him, saying, “Dude, you didn’t have to wait up,” or words to that effect. And they both return to the battle and the story.

“Doesn’t the son of Tydeus know, down deep,/the man who fights the gods does not live long?”

Book 5 has the intriguing title “Diomedes Fights the Gods.” This being the Iliad, this of course is meant literally and not metaphorically.

Athena, after goading the Greeks on for a while to “fight, you bastards, fight!” (or words to that effect), decides to go for broke and put so much power into one man, Diomedes, that he is filled with strength, daring, and an all-around glowy gold light. This freaks out his opponents, just as it’s intended to, and he goes around cheerfully killing Trojans.

Down the plane he stormed like a stream in spate,
a routing winter torrent sweeping away the dikes:
the tight, piled dikes can’t hold it back any longer,
banks shoring the blooming vinyards cannot curb its course–
a flash flood bursts as the rains from Zeus pour down their power,
acre on acre the well-dug work of farmers crumbling under it–
so under Tydides’ force the Trojan columns panicked now,
no standing their ground, massed, packed as they were.

Actually, the Greeks seem a little freaked out, too.

You’d think some of the more Trojan-friendly gods might empower their own champion with some glowy gold light, but Athena, having interfered so effectively on behalf of the Greeks, wanders over to Ares and says, essentially, “Hey, you know what? We shouldn’t interfere! Lets go hang out on the beach and let these guys fight it out for themselves. What happens, happens, right?”

In this moment Ares proves he didn’t become the war god based on his brains. He follows Athena away.

Athena keeps helping her boy out, telling Diomedes that she’s lifted the mist over his eyes so he can tell men from gods. (Mist that keeps you from seeing the gods–Rick Riordan was being canonical!) Athena gives Diomedes strict orders that he’s supposed to use this awesome new power to make sure he only fights mortals, “Unless of course, you meet that bitch Aphrodite–her you can hurt all you want.” Or words to that effect.

Aphrodite, having spirited Paris away from the fighting and dragged Helen to his bed, is now trying to spirit her son Aeneas off the battlefield as well. Diomedes interferes, stabs Aphrodite in the “soft, limp wrist,” and Aphrodite runs crying home to her mother.

Until now, I’d been pretty annoyed at Aphrodite for protecting her pretty boys, especially Paris, whose fault this whole war is, after all. But then we get thoughts like these from Diomedes:

… knowing her for the coward goddess she is,
none of the mighty gods who marshal men to battle …


Diomedes shouted after her, shattering war cries:
‘Daughter of Zeus, give up the war, your lust for carnage!
So, it’s not enough to lure defenseless women
to their ruin. Haunting the fighting, are you?
Now I think you’ll cringe at the hint of war …”

And then Zeus gets in on the act, telling Aphrodite:

Fighting is not for you, my child, the works of war.
See to the works of marriage, the slow fires of longing.
Athena and blazing Ares will deal with all the bloodshed.

At which point it all seemed a little too much like a lot of condescending, “Little girl, don’t trouble your head with all that messy fighting.”

So I’ve changed my mind. From now on, Aphrodite can protect whoever she wants to, and I’ll be right there cheering her on.

Meanwhile, Apollo steps in the protect Aeneas, along the way calling Ares back to the battlefield. Ares goads the Trojans to “fight, you bastards, fight!” Athena tells Diomedes to forget that nonsense about not hurting any of the other gods, gets into Diomedes’ chariot right beside him and together they injure Ares–who goes crying home to his Dad. Their conversation goes something like this:

Ares: “You let Athena get away with everything.
Zeus: “Quit whining. I always loved you least anyway.”

The fighting goes on. Paris is still nowhere in sight.

“… and the dark came swirling down across his eyes.”

Book 4:

Agamemnon: “Menalaus, my brother, the Trojans have killed you! The Trojans will pay!”
Menalaus: “Chill, it’s not a mortal wound. Seriously.”
Agamemnon: “The Trojans will still pay!”

The truce falls apart. Men die. We begin to wonder why Agamemnon, whose wife the Trojans did not abduct, seems so much more bent on killing them all (all! all!) than Menalaus, whose wife the Trojans did abduct.

Speaking of Menalaus’ ex, no sign of Paris this book. Once can only assume he’s still rolling around with Helen.

But never mind that. The thing that’s genuinely wonderful is the use of language and metaphor, which very much comes through in this translation, and which makes those battle scenes more compelling than they ought to be.

Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a forge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hear’s the thunder–
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war.

There’s another extended passage, in this book or maybe the next, that compared the churn and dust of the battle to the threshing of grain.

And there are shorter evocative passages. Including, as men die, the repeated phrase, “the dark came swirling down across his eyes.” (shivers)

As lnhammer says, the things Homer does well, he does very well indeed.

If this were a saga, Paris would die in book three

And Iris came on Helen in her rooms …
weaving a growing web, a dark red folding robe,
working into the weft the bloody struggles
stallion-breaking Trojans and Argives armed in bronze
had suffered all for her at the god of battle’s hands.

Book 3 being the book in which we meet Helen, who I found I disliked less than I remembered–but I think my memories may all actually come from The Odyssey. It turns out the troops aren’t the only ones tired of this war–Helen, as far as I can tell, wants it over too–longs to go back home to her first husband and her other family and friends, and is none too pleased with Paris these days.

She has some reason for this. Because the main thing going on in this book is that Paris challenges Menelaus to single combat to end the war. The men all seem almost as happy with this as with running away back to their ships. But Aphrodite, not so much–when Paris is clearly about to die, Aphrodite swoops Paris away off the battlefield, back to his scented room. Another man might storm right back onto that battlefield and challenge Menelaus once more, rather than let more men die because of him. That man never would have abducted Helen in the first place though, most likely.

This man stays happily abed and Aphrodite, who of course is totally on board with this plan, makes Helen join him there. Helen is none too happy about that, either:

“So, home from the wars!
Oh would to god you’d died there, brought down
by that great soldier, my husband long ago.
And how you used to boast year in, year out,
that you were the better man than fighting Menelaus.”

It may be just me, but this doesn’t sound like someone who’s still in love.

But Paris doesn’t quite seem to get it:

“This time, true,
Menelaus has won the day, thanks to Athena.
I’ll bring him down tomorrow.
Even we have gods who battle on our side. But come–
let’s go to bed, let’s lose ourselves in love!
Never has longing overwhelmed me so,
no, not even then, I tell you, that first time
when I swept you up from the lovely hills of Lacedaemon …
That was nothing to how I hunger for you now–
irresistable longing lays me low!”

In summary: Paris wants sex. Helen wants him to go to hell. Any guesses as to whose will prevails?

Outside, Menelaus stalks the lines, trying to figure out where his single-combat opponent has gotten to. And we all have a pretty good suspicion more Greeks and Trojans are going to die before Paris rouses himself out of bed again.