That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Reimagining Homer: Christopher Logue’s War Music

Homer doesn’t waste time. We find the inciting incident of his Iliad in the first book: Agamemnon, newly bereft of his chosen spoils of war, demands compensation from Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, in the form of Briseis, a slave seized from a Trojan town. As a result, of course, Achilles sits out eighteen books of the war while the Greeks are slaughtered, only returning to the fray when his beloved Patroklos is struck down. It all could have been avoided if he’d just stabbed Agamemnon in the neck back in book one, something he very nearly did.

You might have read the account in Lattimore’s famous translation, or Fitzgerald’s. Both are wonderful. I want to point out, however, the more recent version by Christopher Logue, an incomplete rendering of Homer’s original titled War Music.

I use the word version because Logue’s Iliad is a translation only in the loosest sense of the word, as you can see in this passage from Book I:

Achilles’ face
Is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat.
His brain says: “Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home.”
His thigh steels flex.

And then,
Much like a match-flame struck in full sunlight,
We lose him in the prussic glare
Teenage Athena, called the Daughter Prince—who burst
Howling and huge out of God’s head—sheds
From her hard, wide-apart eyes, as she enters
And stops time.

But those still dying see:
Achilles leap the 15 yards between
Himself and Agamemnon;
Achilles land, and straighten up, in one;
Achilles’ fingertips—such elegance!—
Push push-push push, push Agamemnon’s chest;
The King lean back; Achilleus grab
And twist the mace out of his royal hand
And lift it… Oh… flash! Flash!
The heralds running up…

But we stay calm,
For we have seen Athena’s radiant hand
Collar Achilles’ plait,
Then as a child its favorite doll
Draw his head back towards her lips
To say:

“You know my voice?
You know my power?

“Be still.”

When I first read these lines, I almost fell out of my chair. There’s so much to delight in here that I can’t possibly do the passage justice. For starters, I think Logue captures the both the majesty of Homer’s gods (beside whom the greatest warrior of the Greeks is a match beside the sun) and their fundamental immaturity (she is Teenage Athena, playing with her doll).

Logue handles his syntax like a mountain-biker on a fast downhill course. Take a look at that second strophe. It’s all one sentence, the lines enjambed so hard we feel ready to skid off the page, the subject suspended until the third line, Teenage Athena having to reach to keep contact with her own verb. The whole thing feels reckless until he skids to a stop and you realize he had it under control the entire time.

I could go on and on. Logue gives us an Iliad in which we move through the “head-lock, body-slam” of battle, in which Patroklos “fought like dreaming,” where men “lay their tired necks against [the] sword like birds.” I have no end of admiration for the better-known translations, but there’s no need to pick. I try to read the Iliad every year or three, and Logue’s sublime rendering is always in the rotation.

After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian Staveley began writing epic fantasy. The Providence of Fire, the second installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, publishes January 13th from Tor and Tor UK. He lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley and also on his blog.


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