Review by Piotr Gwiazda
The Iliad Book XXII: The Death of Hector
by Lisa Jarnot
Atticus/Finch Books, 2006
Bookthug (Toronto), 2007
It is often noted about Homer, the “compiler of the Iliad” (as George Steiner calls him), that in his portrayal of the Trojan War he remains neutral. Homer famously doesn’t take sides; there are no winners or losers among his fighting warriors. The defeated Trojans are depicted as being equally as brave as the victorious Greeks, because in telling the story of the conflict Homer wants to represent the heroic ideal itself. Thus Simone Weil, who on the eve of World War II identified force as the true hero and subject of the poem, argues that in his depiction of the heroes Homer is “impartial as sunlight.” Homer displays the vast panorama of human experience, which by definition includes the operations of force (with Achilles as its most tangible embodiment). A solemn tone is maintained throughout, which is appropriate in a poem that features multiple deaths on the battlefield and concludes with an imminent destruction of a city.
Death itself is described in Homer’s poem as productive. For example, in Book XVI, when Trojan hero Sarpedon, struck by Patroclus’s spear, falls to the ground, he is compared to an oak, a white poplar, and finally (in Robert Fagles’s translation) a “towering pine that shipwrights up on a mountain / hew down with whetted axes for sturdy ship timber.” The idea behind the famous simile (used more than once in the Iliad) is that in the larger scheme of things Sarpedon’s death is not purposeless; rather, it is a continuation of the natural cycle. Just as trees are hewed down to make timber for ships, so Sarpedon, in the cosmic sense, is transformed through his death into future warriors who will in their turn seek glory on the battlefield. (“Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men,” says another hero, Glaucus, earlier in the poem.) His death proves that change is the only constant in nature. War, which demands honor, bravery, fame but also extreme violence, suffering, and pain, is perhaps the most visible manifestation of the world of force that, in Weil’s words, “turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This far-seeing view of the world is what we call Homer’s vision—a vision that, if not exactly comforting, at least seems realistic.
In 2006 Atticus/Finch, a small press based at the time in Buffalo, NY published Lisa Jarnot’s translation of Book XXII of the Iliad. Jarnot admits in an interview that she translated Homer’s text “leisurely and amateurishly” (though she had studied ancient Greek in college), but the result is nevertheless impressive; the ancient tale comes to life again in this new version. For her measure Jarnot chose vigorous, gorgeously limpid free verse rather than the stately hexameter favored by Fagles, except for one instance where she conveys a passage entirely in prose.
The book is known for its portrayal of the duel between Achilles and Hector. In the beginning parts, Achilles, who has already killed a number of Trojans to avenge the death of his best friend Patroclus, is lured away by Apollo while the remnant of the Trojan army retreats into the city. Inside the palace walls, King Priam and his wife Hecuba contemplate their son’s imminent encounter with Achilles and already lament his likely death. Meanwhile, as the Trojan hero prepares for the battle against his fierce enemy, a feeling of (in Jarnot’s translation) “disquiet” comes over him. He begins to ponder:
. . . what if I put down this heavy shield and heavy helm and put my spear down on the wall and go to meet Achilles to promise back him Helen and also all the property she came with that was brought by Alexander in the hollow ships when he came into Troy since that is where this fight began and we will give this all to the Achaeans that they can take it away and also if they want to they can have half of everything the city ever held and I can say the word was sworn by all the Trojan elders that there’s nothing they will hide, dividing everything into two good equal parts and even all the treasures that are in this lovely city that we always have held here . . .
Hector had formerly displayed plenty of heroism on the battlefield, but at this moment, immediately before his faceoff with Achilles, he contemplates not fighting but surrendering. He reflects on the cause of the war—and on its likely consequences. He looks for an honorable way to end the conflict. But will Achilles even be open to negotiations? Or perhaps
. . . he might have no respect and he might have no pity and then he’ll murder me even though I don’t have any armor like a girl is what I’ll look like when I’m out there facing him . . .
This is, in fact, Hector’s final conclusion and so he decides to fight Achilles after all. But when he first sees his powerful adversary, Hector is paralyzed by fear. He starts to run away and the two warriors circle the area around the city as many as three times—“one who fled / and one who was pursuing”—before, following a crafty intervention of Athena, they put their weapons to use. Soon Hector’s throat is pierced by Achilles’s spear. As he faces death, he begs his opponent to return his body to his family. But his plea is ignored; Achilles strips Hector of his armor, then fastens the corpse to his chariot and drags it behind it in a cloud of dust (the human being has become a thing) in front of the horrified spectators.
In her essay on the Iliad published in 1943, Rachel Bespaloff argues that “Homer wanted [Hector] to be a whole man and spared him neither the quaking of terror nor the shame of cowardice.” Indeed, in Hector’s inner debate just before the duel with Achilles we are given a picture of a hero who is not larger than life but refreshingly lifelike. He weighs the obligation to his city against the impulse for self-preservation; he wavers between honor and shame. This moment of hesitation, even in a proud and occasionally overconfident hero like Hector, should not be entirely surprising. If Achilles in Homer’s epic is associated with force, Hector, who certainly can prove his excellence in battle, is associated with the idea of resistance, the need to protect one’s family and community against intruders: “Fight for your country—that is the best, the only omen,” he says to a fellow warrior earlier in the poem (Fagles’s translation). For this reason Hector, in contrast to Achilles, has been called a civic hero, even a domestic hero.
According to the heroic code, the warrior must prove his worth on the battlefield in order to achieve fame afterwards, either in life or death. But Hector, in his moment of “disquiet,” is not thinking about the future. As Troy’s protector (as well as a son, husband, and father) he is thinking only about the present. We are offered a glimpse into the mind of someone who, after ten years of meaningless fighting, is seeking ways to end the carnage. It is true that Hector shows fear, even cowardice. But in his contemplation of surrender to the enemy he also shows maturity, restraint—and whatever is the opposite of force.
Importantly, Hector’s moment of crisis is the only passage in the book that Jarnot decides to render in prose rather than in verse. This reminds us of the relationship between the epic and the novel. Both are narrative genres, but in the novel (as Milan Kundera has said) we are more likely to understand characters than to admire them. However we interpret Hector’s self-doubt, in this introspective passage we see him at a very human moment.
Bespaloff continues: “Not the wrath of Achilles, but the duel between Achilles and Hector, the tragic confrontation of the revenge-hero and the resistance-hero, is what forms the Iliad’s true center.” And this is perhaps the reason why Jarnot chose to translate Book XXII rather than any other portion of the Iliad, because this is where Homer’s poem of force embodies, however briefly, a yearning for peace. The fact that she undertook this translation in the early months of the US war against Iraq speaks for itself, as does her dedication of the poem “In memory of all the people out there who just keep killing each other.” That’s her vision—as impartial, somber and realistic as Homer’s, but perhaps just a bit more consoling.
Piotr Gwiazda is the author of two books of poetry, Messages (Pond Road Press, 2012) and Gagarin Street: Poems (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2005). He has also published a critical study James Merrill and W.H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). His poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including AGNI, Barrow Street, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Jacket, The Southern Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).