Trojan Women Act One

Trojan Women Act One

Mon 19 Mar

THE ILIAD BY HOMER. Translated by CAROLINE ALEXANDER. London: Vintage, 2017.

THE ODYSSEY BY HOMER. Translated by EMILY WILSON. London: Norton, 2018.



 “The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force.” – Simone Weil

The BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City is careful to foreground the female experience of ancient Greece. In so doing the story becomes more accessible to those, like myself, who are intimidated by the protective patina of classical scholarship that surrounds Homer’s epic. Although scenes of Queen Hecuba showing Helen of Troy contouring and make-up tricks is a tad patronising to the gals, on the whole the writer, David Farr, has struck the right balance between militaristic brutality and love and intimacy. Scenes of women comforting each other in the widows’ quarters, to which Helen is consigned once Paris does a runner, have a tenderness and fragility to them that suggest a refuge from chaos, which is never far away in Homer. Rage, jealousy and passion are equally well represented. Farr presents Homer's heroes as men at the mercy of their gods.

As quoted above, Simone Weil said of the Iliad, that force was the main protagonist.

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.

Farr maintains a balance between the sexes that is not necessarily present in Homer. In Farr's depiction, when women aren't being the spoils of war, they are presented as partners to men, almost equal if not entirely. His battlefield carnage is visceral. But so is the friendship and empathy that can exist between men and enemies.

These moments of grace are rare in the Iliad, but they are enough to make us feel with sharp regret what it is that violence has killed and will kill again.

Weil again. Another writer, Virginia Woolf, said that in reading Homer's poetry it is as if everything that happens, Penelope crossing the room, Telemachus going to bed, were as though it were happening for the first time. When Odysseus crosses the sea in his little hand-made boat, crafty, subtle and passionate though he is, he is crossing an ocean for the first time. Every action that Homer presents, every actor, is filled with a sadness that they do not attempt to mitigate. There is no one who comes before them. They arrive fully formed against a stark landscape. They are beautiful, like children, without knowing it.

Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.

The opening dedication to Caroline Alexander’s translation of the Iliad is to her mother, “who always knew that I would do this”. In itself, this admission is moving. Nurture and love infuse her translation. Alexander gives an accent to the role of emotion in Homer's depiction of political strife; emotion as understood by Homer. Reviewers of Farr's BBC show have proved hostile to the emotion he presents and its expression. It is more media-savvy to be smart than empathetic. But emotions run high in any political situation, especially war, and any study of war should begin with an account of thumos, an outburst of rage or passion.

The blind poet, or the poets who come under the name of Homer, wrote free of the Augustan (and Newsnight) elevation of reason. Alexander understands thumos as the angry defence of one’s honour, loved ones, and country. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, thumos motivates men and women, and is expressed in not one disposition or emotion, but many emotions. Achilles' despair at the death of his friend Patroclus is the most dramatic expression of thumos. Within the sturm und drang, Alexander gives us a nuanced account of “godlike” Achilles that reveals the sulky, frightened boy as well as the terrifying warrior. In the 21st century, people make money out of thumos, as evidenced by a representative of Cambridge Analytica:

So, like, let's say you find out this particular voter is neurotic. OK. Let's scare them with talk of crime and other issues. Let's say you find somebody who's open-minded and kind of optimistic. Well, how can we advertise at them? How can we appeal to that kind of point of view? It's a very - you know, they're using something called psychographics ... etc.

Never underestimate the importance of emotion in politics.

The action of the Iliad was ancient history to those who first listened to it in classical Greece (fifth to fourth centuries BCE). The Trojan War (c1260–1180 BCE) would have seemed to Homer’s audience as real as King Arthur’s Britain was to a medieval audience. The first English translation was rendered by the Elizabethan George Chapman. Two hundred years later, the young poet John Keats spent the night poring over the 1614 folio edition of Chapman’s Homer, and ancient Greece opened up before him.

Then felt I like some watcher in the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

Alexander retains the verve and passion of the great performer revelling in her audience. Noble monologues containing potted family histories and florid invocations have pace and feeling – spiteful exchanges between Achilles and Agamemnon gear up for the final reckoning between Achilles and Hector. For every death there is a pocket biography, giving each fallen soldier dignity and a home in our hearts. Every life matters. In an age where killing machines are electronically manipulated – arguably in the way Homer’s gods manipulated mortals, mass shootings and beheadings are par for the course, the Iliad represents a war story that has pity and meaning for all humanity.

In the Odyssey, Emily Wilson deals with the aftermath, coming home from war. She also has the opportunity to give new voice to Homer’s female characters. She avoids the temptation of “empowering” them. Penelope still sits at home waiting. Wilson does not dress her up. She chooses her words carefully, just as Penelope did: an intelligent women, with a realistic appraisal of the dilemma facing her. Whereas Odysseus, as a male, can leave his home, and dally with goddesses, assume identities, dine with kings, Penelope has just the one choice: wait twenty years for Odysseus to come home, or find a new husband amongst men she cannot love.

At the same time, Wilson highlights the emotional lives of the slaves who feature as spoils of war or chattel born into service. These characters, she suggests, take on the identities of their masters in order to justify the relentless grind of their existence. Vestiges of this can be seen today, in the way that some British subjects share the joy of a British prince about to be married. In order to come to terms with their subjugation, slaves shed their own sense of selves and adopt the trials and celebrations of their social superiors. Wilson addresses these issues in her expansive introduction and when the passage comes from the slave girl who is weary from her work,  the unremitting graft of her life opens up before us just as the glory of ancient Greece did for Keats.

Wilson gives us the daily dissolution of identity that Homeric women and slaves experienced. For Penelope, being a wife means the tearful dismantling of her very self. One of the most jarring passages in Wilson’s translation, occurs when Penelope's son, Telemachos, tells her to shut up. The silencing of women’s voices, just like war and our horror in the face of war, are being presented to us again, but this time by women.

Review by Lilian Pizzichini

Next time: Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. London: Bloomsbury.


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The White Cliffs of

L. Schott

4 years ago

Are celebrities the new slave owners?