Trojan Ends

Book blurbs lie all the time, as we know. Every fantasy novel published in the 70s and 80s was the natural heir of The Lord of the Rings; every sprawling brawling historical epic published in the 40s and 50s was the new Gone with the Wind; every new writer is an amalgam of a few writers who happen to be stylish and is New! And Improved! on top of that.

But the most wounding lie a book-blurb ever told me is still being told to people all across the western world and is destroying the reputation of the first classic of western civilization even as I type. This lie disfigured a paperback translation of the Iliad I picked up as a kid, and some version of it has polluted practically every translation of the Iliad I’ve seen. I was already interested in mythology (Norse more than Greek) and I wanted a full version of the Trojan War story. And that’s what the cover advertised: “Here is the story of the Trojan War” etc. etc. in vaguely splendiferous terms that, had I known then what I know now, would have told me the blurb-writer hadn’t actually read the book.

So I plunged in and was bored and irritated. They were already there. Wasn’t there supposed to be a swan? A golden apple and some goddesses? Suspicion smote me and I flipped on to the end. It didn’t tell the end of the war, either: it ended with somebody’s funeral and Troy still standing. I dropped the book and walked away.

It’s not surprising that a preteen found little to interest him in the Iliad, but I was reading other stuff more seemingly arid (Emerson, for instance, and Plato in W.H.D. Rowse’s translation). I’m convinced it was the packaging that set up my bad experience; if I’d known I was reading one story set during the Trojan War rather than the story of the Trojan War I would have read differently, perhaps more successfully.

Modern tellings of the whole war do exist. Robert Graves wrote one for children, one of these thin little paperbacks. Roger Lancelyn Green wrote one, and there were others, even back then. Recent examples are Lindsay Clarke’s The War at Troy and Barry Powell’s The War at Troy: a True History (reviewed here). David Gemmell at his death was working on the third novel of a trilogy that tells an idiosyncratic version of the war. (I’ve heard his widow is completing it for publication.)

But the reader who wants ancient sources that continuously and fully narrate the Trojan War story from beginning to end is mostly out of luck. There were epics written for precisely this purpose: to fill in the blanks in the Trojan War story left by the two great Homeric epics. But these have been lost; all we have are summaries and signs of work that was appropriated by later and possibly more gifted writers (like Sophocles and Vergil).

There is one epic surviving from late antiquity that does put together a continuous narrative from the death of Hector through the departure of the Greeks after the sack of Troy: Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica. It has a very bad reputation, to the extent that it has any reputation at all, and that’s partly because of inadequate translations into English. It was first translated by A.S. Way in the Loeb classics series back in 1913. I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of reading A.S. Way: he’s the guy who (in another volume of the Loeb classics) made Eurpides’ Medea sound like the libretto for a musical comedy. And he wrote in that weird stilted mishmash of pseudo-archaic English that classicists call Loebsprache. That was the only version in English for decades (if it can be said to be in English at all); in the late 60s Frederick Combellack produced a prose version imprecisely titled The War at Troy which I haven’t read, but doesn’t seem to have done much for Quintus’ reputation.

Alan James published a new verse translation of Quintus’ Posthomerica a couple of years ago and it has recently come out in an affordable paperback edition from Johns Hopkins University Press. (JHUP is that rare university press which seems to realize that most of their target audience won’t buy their books if they make them too expensive for most of their target audience to buy. This would seem to be obvious, but most academic presses live in another world than ours.)

AJ’s translation might be what’s necessary for a renaissance in Quintus’ reputation. More importantly, I could put it in the hands of someone who wants a sequel to the Iliad and say “That covers the rest of the story” without worrying that the person would later hunt me down and kill me. It’s a mostly clear, clean piece of English with touches of poetic vigor and it substantially covers the legends relating to Troy’s fall.

It’s not without problems. There is some clumsy wording. On p. 127, for instance, the text says that Achilles’ armor “very lightly… fitted [Neoptolemus’] frame.” It’s not clear that something can fit lightly. On page 60 AJ uses the word tampon in an obsolete sense to mean a particular kind of bandage. Since nowadays the word typically refers to something that soaks up blood in another context, I thought AJ’s word-choice was rather tone-deaf here.

AJ’s judgement is open to question at another point. In book 6 (AJ’s page 108), Eurypylos, Heracles’ grandson kills a guy named Nireus and is bragging about it. Machaon, son of Asclepius, comes up to challenge him and recover Nireus’ body. Then, according to AJ, Eurypylos

leapt upon Machaon
And swiftly dealt a wound with his long and heavy spear
Into the right buttock. The other neither retreated
Nor flinched before his attacker…

It’s self-evident that the combatants are facing each other and there’s no way that Eurypylos could wound Machaon’s buttock with his “long and heavy spear” (insert lewd joke here) unless he had arms like Mr. Fantastic. Clearly, there’s something wrong with the text or AJ’s interpretation of it, and his note on this passage suggests some controversy without explicating it very well. Plus, it just sounds awkward. Is this an epic battle or a Tom and Jerry cartoon?

The sensitive reader will be stung by this stuff periodically, but in general the English is painless and as vivid as accuracy allows. Here Eos (= Dawn) worrying for her son, Memnon as he fights with Achilles (from AJ’s p. 37f):

Meanwhile the goddess Dawn was afraid for her dear son,
standing in her sky-borne chariot. Near to her
the daughters of the sun god in amazement stood
Along the wondrous circle of the unwearied Sun…

This won’t lure the casual reader into studying Greek, but it won’t cause him/her to stop reading the book either. It’s a tough and determined reader who gets this far in anything written by Way.

But the best translation can’t conceal the fact that this epic is not really a great work. It’s not unified in plot, but just strings together episodes in chronological sequence. And many of those episodes have the same tedious narrative rhythm: antagonist appears, hero confronts him/her, hero defeats him/her. This happens four times (with variations) through the epic, taking up the lion’s share of its pages, and it would be a patient reader who never tires of it. Plus some of these episodes have been treated more capably by better poets: Sophocles wrote of Ajax’s madness and Philoctetes’ recruitment in two of his surviving tragedies, for instance, and Vergil wrote the definitive account of Troy’s last day and night in book 2 of the Aeneid. Quintus’ accounts pale in contrast to these. Quintus is afflicted with “White Room Syndrome,” too: lots of his action takes place against settings that have been inadequately sketched in.

But Quintus provides one of the few coherent narrative accounts of Achilles’ death and its aftermath. He tells the tales of Penthesileia the Amazon queen and the Ethiopian Memnon, who survive elsewhere largely in footnotes to art history. If Quintus isn’t a great poet or a great storyteller, he still may be a good informant, passing along stories that have only a skeletal presence elsewhere.

In summary, I would never hand this book to someone in order to get them interested in the Trojan War or Greek mythology. But if they already were, I’d pass it along to them as a valuable resource.

[There’s a more academic sort of review of AJ’s translation, in its 2005 hardback edition, here.]

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Trojan Ends

  1. fpb says:

    I am committed to a large-scale study of the epic of Troy, its origins, parallels and significance (and what large-scale means where I am concerned you can check by having a look at my History of Britain 497-597, available free online). So I cannot properly reply to this post without overloading the comments thread ridiculously. What I can say is that part of my early conclusions is that Homer’s two poems are in the nature of add-ons to an already existing epic cycle whose size may well have been comparable to the immense Indian Mahabharata, or to the vast medieval Arthurian compilation, the Vulgate Cycle (which are also the closest parallel among Indo-European cultures, at least so far as I know). These poems survive only as the outlines published by Loebs in their recent book of Greek epic fragments, and the matter is complicated by the fact that even some of them do seem to beear, in turn, the influence of Homer, and may therefore be either later or have been rewritten. Homer’s poems were compiled as a kind of artistic comment and protest against the values implicit in the earlier works, and their artistic success – which seems to have begun in Peisistratid Athens, where the legend of the re-compilation of Homer meets the fact of a sudden increase of Homeric themes in pottery decoration and other arts – made previous or parallel work to be forgotten, except among the most learned Greeks. In the same way, Virgil obliterated almost all previous Latin epics, and Ferdawsi silenced his Persian predecessors.

    What I am saying is simply that Homer was not the first, that he worked on a previously existing tradition, but that he did so with such brilliance that we no longer have, except as outlines, the tradition he worked from.

    • JE says:

      Any comments you have on this stuff I’m interested to read.

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a huge epic tradition which precedes Homer. M.L. West, I think, actually dates Hesiod before Homer (or at least before the Odyssey), but in any case the tradition of oral epic must precede any written epic. (I think they were written in a literary tradition based on oral epic rather than compiled: see stuff by Milman Parry, Albert Lord, Adam Parry.)

  2. zornhau says:

    Agree on bad translations…

    …Medieval lit is dogged with the same crap. “Lancelot was inspecting the ranks when…” this in the middle of the melee when he accidentally smote Gareth, his best mate.

    But, two guys facing off with spears… I can imagine ways in which the right buttock might get it, especially if Mr Big Spear was using it two handed.

    • JE says:

      I was thinking, as I read the passage, “Zornhau would have something to say about this…”

      I’m trying to lay my hands (and, more importantly, my eyes) on a Greek text to see what the problem might be. Classics books tend to get exiled to university warehouses, so it may take a few days.

  3. bg_editor says:

    I’m sorry to hear about this one. I’d read that it was actually a pretty good story… but then I don’t recall my source anymore. I appreciate the heads up, and won’t be running out for this one anytime soon. I’ll also remove it from my “to-be-read” pile, as it is dangerously tall already.

    • JE says:

      It’s possible that the Dark Side is too strong with me when I look at something like this. And the comparison to Homer doesn’t really favor Quintus, and I’ve been reading a lot of Homer lately. I wouldn’t run out and buy the book, but if a lightly used copy came your way for free, it might be worth a skim.

Comments are closed.