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Title: The Iliad
Author: Homer*, translation Richard Lattimore, narrator Charlton Griffin
What it’s about: “The anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation.” If you don’t know the story of the Iliad, there are spoilers ahead. The Iliad is about a few days toward the very end of the Trojan war. It doesn’t actually include the story of the Trojan horse (sorry for the false advertising) or the abduction of Helen. It’s about what happens when Achilles gets mad at Agamemnon for disrespecting him, and then gets mad at Hector for killing his best friend. It’s about honor and glory and fate and meddlesome gods.
Why did I read (listen) to it: We’re studying ancient history this year, and the girls are going to read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, along with some shorter works like Gilgamesh, a couple of plays, and some of the Bible (Job, for example.) But we listened to it instead of reading it, and that’s key.
The Iliad isn’t only an important work of the time in history we’re studying, but it’s a foundation stone for all of Western literature. It’s kind of a big deal. And I’m of the (increasingly rare) opinion that we ought to know firsthand the stories, laws, and cultures upon which our civilization was built. So my girls are reading (or listening to) these works first hand, not relying on some sort of cultural osmosis, which is becoming less and less effective.
What I thought: The Iliad was made to be recited, most likely over the course of three days at an annual festival. Can you imagine hearing this while at a banquet? “Pass me the grapes.”“This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear, the eyeball stuck.”
“Um, never mind. I’ll skip the grapes.”
I had read the Iliad a few years back. I’m very familiar with the story. But listening to the Iliad was a completely new and wonderful experience. When you hear it, you understand why it has endured for more than 2500 years.
Despite the stark differences in our cultures, you understand the enduring appeal. It also made me think about what it means to be a hero, and how “hero” is different from culture to culture. The girls are actually writing papers comparing a hero in our culture and a hero from the Iliad. Little Miss is comparing Benjamin Franklin and Nestor, and Sprite is comparing Harry Potter and Achilles. In fact, that’s probably what we talked about most: the nature of heroism. But if we listened to it again, something else would probably catch our attention. That’s what the classics do: make you think and rethink.
Actually, the girls were probably most struck by how gory it was. I don’t think they were expecting that.
Where you can get it: Here! (Also, your library!) But you’ll also need a bard, and that’s where Audible comes in very handy. Here’s a handy little tutorial about getting the most from an Audible account.
Notes on “teaching” the story: I’m greatly indebted to The Great Courses series on The Iliad. It gave me an understanding of the story and the context that helped a great deal, but I don’t think it was absolutely necessary if you want to read this with your kids. Other tools that were helpful were the charts from Teaching the Classics and some of the questions. The most useful resource in helping me start the discussions was this presentation by Andrew Kern “How to Teach Literature Without Killing the Student or the Book.” (FYI, That’s an autoplay audio file.) But my main tip is: don’t “teach” the book at all. Don’t get between your kid and the book, whatever it is. Yes, help them understand what they might miss, but don’t tear it apart so much they hate the story. Or you.
Perhaps the most helpful part of reading (listening to) The Iliad was that this is not a “new” story to the girls. They’ve heard these stories in various forms since they were tiny. They were already familiar with the basics of the story and the characters, so they didn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what was happening. Some good children’s versions are The Children’s Homer and Black Ships Before Troy. If you have an Audible account, and you get the kindle version of The Children’s Homer, you can get the Audible version for a couple of bucks.