by Rich Moreland, October 2017
Here is my review of The War Nerd Iliad: A Modern Prose Translation of Homer’s Iliad by John Dolan.
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John Dolan’s The War Nerd Iliad is just what the professor ordered for any student, scholar, or generally interested person who wants an uncluttered (as in outdated usage) version Homer’s work. The author keeps the tempo rocking with a contemporary writing style that even the most reluctant hardcore classicist can appreciate.
Having avoided the Iliad in its entirety since my university days, I found Dolan’s approach a welcome change from the usual academic translation that glazes over eyes.
Take, for example, this description of events at the beginning of the story when an old priest hopes to negotiate the release of his captive daughter from the Greeks. She’s been thrown in with a group of “decent-looking girls,” Dolan tells us, so the groping warriors can examine her teeth and buttocks. A spoil of war, she was the first chosen, claimed by Agamemnon. Now her father is offering a ransom for her.
To understand the drama of the scene, you could read the following from a Tufts University translation:
“Then all the rest of the Achaeans shouted assent, to reverence the priest and accept the glorious ransom, yet the thing did not please the heart of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, but he sent him away harshly, and laid upon him a stern command . . .”
Or this by the War Nerd . . .
“There’s muttering: the Greeks don’t like the way Agamemnon is acting.
Someone in the crowd yells, ‘Take the gold!’
Another voice: ‘What’s the point? Why make the gods angry?’ Someone else yells, ‘Let her go home.’
But Agamemnon will never let her go.”
My vote goes to John Dolan who tells the story in a way that rephrases the traditional prose associated with the Classics and adds a bit of modern slang to boot. What’s more, he likes the suggestive and seeks to rile the erotic.
Here’s what Agamemnon tells the priest he will do with the girl:
“I’ll take her to my couch and bend her over, bend her anyway I please. While she is young that is.”
Every reader can let his, or her, imagination loose with that description.
After letting his words sink in, Agamemnon comments that when she is old, well, she’ll lose her usefulness, if you know what I mean.
Later the author has something to offer the kinkiest of readers when he writes about Zeus’s constant irritation with his wife, Hera, who apparently needs some discipline every now and then.
“‘I’m thinking of giving you a good hard beating. Remember that time you tried to tie me down? . . . I had to teach you a lesson. I let you hang by your wrists all night . . . couldn’t even sleep for your screams.’”
Phew! Picture that scene!
To the casual observer of Greek mythology, the gods as cantankerous, arrogant manipulators is common knowledge. The same can be said for the mortals who worry incessantly about proper ritual to please the Mt. Olympus crowd.
Dolan modernizes their tiring bouts of pettiness with dark humor. Of course, the whole conflict between the Greeks (Achaeans) and the Trojans is the height of pettiness (remember that the air-headed Paris selecting the equally vacuous Aphrodite in the beauty contest initiates the pointless war.)
Every instance and every thought expressed in this tale creates a ruckus that is only rivaled by today’s Presidential tweets.
The author takes the reader into the fighting that is always a playground for the interfering gods. Of course, Dolan spares us the niceties. When Achilles, the son of the lower level goddess Thetis, kills Polydoros, one of Priam’s sons, the spear enters the boy’s back and exits near his navel. The lad “dies on his knees trying to stuff his guts back into his belly.”
When Antikolas is in trouble, Poseidon saves him by “lifting up the earth” to bend a spear-headed his way. The Greek warrior then kills a Trojan by chucking his spear “right into his groin between the navel and the balls.” The War Nerd insists it’s a pretty painful way to die.
How about this bit of action to stimulate horror movie fun? A dying Trojan’s macabre journey to Hades comes after a vicious throat slashing.
“Lykon’s head is left hanging on by a strip of skin. He goes down to the dark like that, with his head flapping down his back like a mule’s saddle-bag.”
Or this . . . when Pisander rushes Agamemnon’s brother Menaleus, the Greek spears him in the face.
“It breaks like a clay bowl. His eyes pop out and roll in the dust, as the Greeks laugh and cheer, pointing at the eyes, shouting, ‘You dropped a couple of eggs!'”
The Iliad can be read as history, literature, or mythology, and I might add, psychology because the tale is a study in human personality, its hubris and its frailties. There are elitists who are selfish and self-assured, and an assortment of others who grovel, faun, and boast to influence those around them or simply to survive.
War does that to people, you know, often rewarding the baser human instincts while skimming off the brave. In his interpretation of heroes like Achilles and Hector, charlatans like Agamemnon and Menelaus, and disagreeable gods like Athena, Hera, and Zeus, the author opens up the many avenues of the human condition, the very reason Homer’s saga has endured over the millennia.
Now, thanks to The War Nerd John Dolan, the Iliad is an enjoyable read for anyone seeking to ditch the stilted language of the past and move forward with the linguistic style of our social media age.
We’ll part with Dolan’s description of Paris, the stud who started this debacle called the Trojan War.
“The only reason he didn’t drive a Porsche or wear Ray-Bans was because the infrastructure wasn’t there yet. He’d have defected Malibu in a second if the airport had been ready. . .”
Can’t get much better than that!
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The War Nerd Iliad is available from Feral House.