Sometimes when you’re weird you read certain books because you think you should. Not because they’re assigned to you from a course, not even because they’re recommendations from a friend. You read them… to have read them.
You want to know what the hype is about. Even if that hype was really from a thousand years ago. But people still regard this work of literature, allude to it, quote it, and misquote it. Are academicians just asleep at the wheel when making us read some of them or are epics actually Important?
So somewhere along the way I pursued certain classics aside from my assigned readings, mostly out of a sense of obligation. A few of these actually became some of my favorite books for reasons besides their perceived importance.
Beowulf is the most heavy-metal fucking poem ever; it is arm-ripping, grog-swilling, bearded Awesomeness. It’s also an exception to the idea that we don’t care about epics anymore, and I’m not just thinking of the movie. Seamus Heaney’s translation years ago was a national bestseller, so either there was some wickedly deceptive marketing behind the book or today’s readers are still genuinely enthralled by one of the oldest surviving works of English.
The Song of Roland is an underappreciated work, but it’s understandable why this is. It’s primarily Christian crusader propaganda, and therefore doggedly anti-Muslim and at times jaw-droppingly racist. I was going to make this a staff recommendation at my work but baulked on it considering how not PC it is to the general public. This is a shame: The Song of Roland is the most impressively plotted and characterized piece of pre-Chaucer literature I’ve found.
The Divine Comedy has the single most preposterous premise in all of literature, with the most arrogant and ambitious author behind it. But the amazing thing is that as you read Dante you discover that his ego is actually justified: he is as profound and amazing as he insists he is throughout the poem. To me, The Divine Comedy managed to be as enjoyable as it was important.
So you read a string of these epics, let’s say, and love each one. Then you get overconfident and smack into a wall — one that’s about 600 pages thick and embodies all of the reasons why we don’t really read epic poetry anymore.
Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Finish The Iliad
- When I consider what isn’t in The Iliad, I become less impressed by what is. I wonder how many people are surprised to learn that in Homer there’s no Trojan Horse. The poem ends before that. No Achilles heel business, either. Some of the nastier feuds between characters, like the one between Odysseus and Ajax, aren’t Homer’s but are rather inventions of Sophocles or Aeschylus.
- Let’s sum it up. The Greeks are winning and then a god intervenes and the Trojans are winning and then a god intervenes and the Greeks start winning and then a god intervenes and the Trojans start winning and then Achilles intervenes and the Greeks start winning.
- You know something’s wrong when you’re repeatedly wondering whether the translation you’ve got is really any good. “Well damn, I wonder if the Lombardo’s any better, or is the Fagles as good as it gets?” Maybe the poem isn’t that engrossing no matter who gussied up the Greek for you.
- Oh, those onslaughts of details that are wholly irrelevant to us 2,800 years later. This is the biggest reason why people won’t read epics, and you can’t convince them otherwise with The Iliad. I know lineage was important in Ancient Greece, and I suppose I lack the appreciation. But when Clitus is introduced in battle, must you recite his background, then his father’s, then his grandfather’s just so dude can get a spear in the face and never be mentioned again?
Now this doesn’t mean I won’t finish the thing someday, or read The Odyssey (which is way more interesting). But you know, life is too short to read something that’s neither fun nor enlightening.
Or useful. But that pursuit is usually long gone once you’ve started reading classics with your time.