John Dolan's "The War Nerd Iliad"

January 8, 2018

I could never get into poetry. Whenever I read a poem I wind up only paying attention to form and style and miss whatever the poem is trying to say. I’m sure there is a way to learn how to read poems, but I’ve never managed to find it.

This of course leaves me out of a lot of literature I’d like to know better, like much of Ancient Greece, The Canterbury Tales, Os Lusíadas, and Shakespeare plays (excluding the ones I had the opportunity to see performed). The closest I can generally get to those works is by reading summaries on Wikipedia.

So I was excited when I heard that John Dolan, who I’d known for his straightforward and insightful analysis of war (usually under his nickname The War Nerd), was writing a prose translation of the Iliad. After a few years of waiting I finally had the chance to read it, and I have a few thoughts.

(Disclaimer: prior to reading this I knew very little about the Iliad, Homer, or indeed Greek mythology in general, besides references in modern popular culture. So a lot of what I say might sound obvious, outrageous or just wrong.)

I was familiar with the story of the Trojan War, mostly via the 2004 movie Troy. I remember a common criticism of the movie was that the gods don’t show up at all, whereas they are prevalent in the original text. I imagined the Iliad would have gods do things like God in the Old Testament: bringing a huge flood, causing ten plagues, or sending out a bear to kill children. But in fact Greek gods are not just occasionally doing things to people, they are the main drivers of action. And they are of course extremely human. Indeed they are just like humans, just a lot more powerful and better connected. As Dolan notes in the introduction, they’re more like the Sopranos than the Christian god.

As powerful as Hektor and Akilles are, they always need help from Zeus, Apollo, Athena or Thetis. And the gods are always meddling in human affairs, often for petty reasons that are nevertheless well-established in the text (often disliking a relative or not receiving enough sacrifices). This differentiates the use of gods here from the artifice of deus ex machina that was used in the tragedies of Classical Greece.

I’m convinced that prose it’s the best way to consume this work. If the Iliad really evolved over centuries as oral tradition, as modern scholars conjecture, and was not conceived as poetry by a single person, as Classical scholar assume, then a prose translation is the most true to its origins, given that people tell stories as prose these days.