Saturday, May 19, 2012

Thoughts on The Siege of Troy

Back in 2004 when Wolfgang Peterson's Troy was released in theaters, Tor Books had the idea to release a new translation of the movie's chief inspiration, The Iliad, renaming it The Siege of Troy, y'know, just in case most moviegoers weren't hip to Troy also being referenced, obliquely, as Ilium.  Greg Tobin, I don't know, was given this challenge, but his editors took the day off, and the the resulting effort was littered with typos.

That's as much as you need to know about how this particular book came about, or as near as I can tell.  Otherwise, it's got nothing to do with Troy, which removed all overt influence and elements of Greek gods from the story, and is, like many other people have done over the past few millennia, a new version of the classic tale as originally developed by someone we know as Homer, based on, yes, the siege of Troy.

So much scholarly obsession has gone into trying to figure out who Homer was (which is a folly akin to trying to explain who Shakespeare was, assuming that it could not possibly have been Shakespeare himself) that few people stop to try and actually analyze the story of The Iliad, reducing it when they do to basics that don't conform to what Homer at the very least helped codify many hundreds of years after the events depicted in the narrative.  Tobin's version is not hugely different from translations from the likes of Robert Graves (The Anger of Achilles) or Robert Fitzgerald, and is probably, as Tor Books hoped, one of the cleaner, friendlier versions now available that retains the flavor and character of the original (such as it can be called) text.  It's just strange that even when someone like Alessandro Baricco (An Iliad) attempts to do a more modern version, they still cling to the same fairly archaic outline that treats it like an antique, which is fine as far as preserving history goes, but there are so many versions that it's hardly likely that the original will be lost anytime soon.  That's what makes what Zachary Mason did in The Lost Books of the Odyssey so brilliant (except, as the title suggests, Mason mostly concentrates on variations of The Odyssey, though he references the Trojan War frequently as well, just as Margaret Atwood does in The Penelopiad).

The story, for anyone interested, basically boils down thusly:

Agamemnon is told that one of the women he's taken into possession along a series of raids in the lead-up to the Trojan War must be relinquished, and his reaction is to claim someone else's prize (another woman), and since Achilles pipes up, he chooses to claim Achilles', which Achilles is so vexed about he opts to remove himself from the fighting around the walls of Troy.  This has bad consequences, because Achilles is the best and most effective fighter in the Greek alliance.  His opposite in the Trojan army, Hector, benefits a great deal, since none of the warriors who attempt to fill the void left by Achilles can manage the task.  Diomedes, Agamemnon, and Odysseus are all eventually wounded in their efforts, and must withdraw from the fight.  Two men named Ajax do their best, and Menelaus, the man whose wife (Helen) was stolen by Paris and brought to Troy, thus triggering the conflict, can't quite fit the bill, either, but is probably the most effective of the remaining warriors.  Eventually, crazy Nestor, the old warrior everyone relies on for council, convinces Patroclus, who is the trusted right-hand man of Achilles, to try and fill the void, and Hector kills him.  Then Achilles, mad with grief, finally returns to battle, slays Hector, and eventually gives the body up to Hector's father, Priam, all the while reflecting on the ironies of fate and fortune.  Oh, and various Greek gods interfere like crazy, but mostly to the effect of echoing the same things.

Modern storytellers would probably want to explain how the war eventually ends, or even how Achilles dies not so long after these events in the same conflict, but that's not what The Iliad does, nor even include the Trojan Horse depicted on the cover of Tobin's book.  The brilliance of it, faithfully preserved by generations of scholars who don't seem to truly appreciate what they're doing, is that the story isn't about the war, but about how Achilles chooses to ignore both his stature and the folly of man in order to stand on principle, to be free to be in control of his own destiny, which seems incredibly odd if you don't understand his reasoning very well, because he knows exactly what that destiny is.  He isn't ultimately concerned with that end result so much as how he reaches it, and will not be coerced unless he himself agrees with the decisions.  he rejects treasures because he knows they are meaningless to the dead, and very nearly chooses to accept an alternate destiny that would rob him of earthly glory and a short life and instead give him a long, mundane one, because he values life and dignity (a little funny, that, considering how many times he drags Hector's dead body around Troy).

Anyway, there's a reason why I've been obsessed with this story, and Tobin does a good job of making that clear with his precise language (again, even though there are numerous typos).  Modern readers would do well to read The Siege of Troy.

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