BMCR 2012.01.21

Homer. The Iliad

, Homer. The Iliad. New York: Free Press, 2011. lxv, 466. ISBN 9781439163375. $35.00.

Stephen Mitchell is, according the Wall Street Journal (!), a ‘rock star’.1 His critically praised, bestselling translations and adaptations include Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Book of Job. His Iliad, already the subject of attention in the popular media, comes with recommendations by James Romm, Sarah Ruden, and Mary Lefkowitz. But despite these impressive credentials, and despite having produced a work that inarguably fulfils three of Matthew Arnold’s four famous criteria for Homeric translation (speed, clarity, and simplicity; nobility is the eternally elusive fourth),2 Mitchell will be criticized by academics for two reasons—the first fair, the second not.3

Before discussing these, I address the introduction and ancillary materials, whose format follows that of the Bernard Knox-Robert Fagles Iliad,4 which remains the benchmark: introduction, pronunciation guide, map, notes to the translation, list of deviations from the Greek text, pronouncing glossary, and bibliography. Mitchell’s introduction, aimed at a general audience, comprises character studies, a discussion of Homeric warfare as both ‘wretched’ and ‘man-glorying’, brief notes on Homeric concepts of hospitality and honour, an in-depth analysis of Priam’s meeting with Achilles, and various observations on the power of Homer’s poetry. It cannot hope to compete with Knox’s celebrated introduction, but it does contain some keen insights. First, Mitchell’s simple answer to the vexed question of why the Trojans did not simply return Helen: ‘in the Iliad, story is fate. The Trojans couldn’t return Helen because they didn’t return her. Troy had to fall because it did fall. Fate … is nothing but the story handed down to Homer, the story he had to tell’ (xxvii). But Homer is resilient in the face of such an oppressive force. Simply by ending his narrative where he does, excluding the Fall of Troy from his poem, ‘Homer gives Priam and Achilles a reprieve of infinite time. … Priam will forever sit at the funeral feast eating, drinking, and mourning over his fallen son to his heart’s content. Achilles will sleep with his beloved Briseïs forever’ ( lii-liii).

The second insight concerns the ‘serenity’ of the Iliad ’s author, an idea which pervades Mitchell’s introduction and translation. His introduction begins: ‘We return to the Iliad because it is one of the monuments of our own magnificence. Its poetry lifts even the most devastating human events into the realm of the beautiful, and it shows us how vast and serene the mind can be even when it contemplates the horrors of war’ (xv). This is Homer the Zen master (Mitchell has followed this discipline for decades), and the characterization has some appeal. Compare his view on the end of book 8 (the Trojan campfires blaze like stars in the night sky), with that of Bernard Knox. First Knox: ‘These are surely the clearest hills, the most brilliant stars and the brightest fires in all poetry, and everyone who has waited to go into battle knows how true the lines are, how clear and memorable and lovely is every detail of the landscape the soldier fears he may be seeing for the last time’ (30). He speaks with the authority of a combat veteran. But Mitchell’s analysis is better: ‘What an astonishing image this is, with its sense of infinite serenity that arises not from any of the characters (the Trojans are revved up with anticipation; the Achaeans are terrified) but from the poet’s own peace of heart’ (xvii).

The notes following the translation are exegetical and mythological; unlike Knox’s original notes to Fagles’ translation, Mitchell’s notes consist largely of excerpts from previously published commentaries and monographs. By their nature they add nothing new to Homeric scholarship, but they facilitate basic understanding of the poem. The bibliography is heavy on commentaries and reference works, light on monographs; it lists many works published in the two decades since Fagles-Knox, but remains less comprehensive. The deviations from M. L. West’s Greek text5 consist almost exclusively of further editing published by West in two subsequent monographs:6 Mitchell has essentially edited West with West.

This brings us to the first scholarly charge to be levelled against Mitchell. He is the first translator to use West’s edition of the Iliad. It is not my place to assess the merits of this edition, which has been thoroughly reviewed.7 But the effect of Mitchell’s choice is that more than 1,000 lines identified by West as un-Homeric— including all of book 10—are missing from the translation. The result, in Mitchell’s view, is ‘a dramatically sharper and leaner text’ (lvii). Also, perhaps, a text useless for teaching or study. The omission of book 10 is particularly egregious, since it seems motivated as much by West as by Mitchell’s own distaste: it is a ‘baroque and nasty episode’ (lvii), which clearly does not fit with his vision of Homer. In any case, a challenge to the orthodox rejection of book 10 has already been mounted.8

The second criticism is more difficult. Mitchell has excised many of Homer’s epithets and patronyms from his translation. So in the first lines of the epic, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος (1.1) is simply ‘Achilles’, ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος (1.14) is ‘the god’s’, and ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί (1.17) is ‘Achaean soldiers’ (but Mitchell is less drastic with ‘that king of men, Agamemnon [lit. “Atreus’ son”], and godlike Achilles’ (1.7), and ‘[the son of Zeus,] Apollo, who strikes from afar’ (1.21)). Mitchell is not the first to realize that faithful reproduction of epithets and patronyms is a mistake: most prominently among modern translators, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Lombardo all took liberties in pursuit of better poetry.9 How does Mitchell compare to these three? Let us turn to the beginning of book 2. As the scene opens, gods and mortals—ἀνέρες ἱπποκορυσταὶ—are asleep. This epithet is rare (5 times in the poem) and imposing; it deserves to be translated. Fitzgerald goes too far (‘those who fought at Troy—/ horse-handlers, charioteers’), Fagles perhaps not far enough (‘chariot-driving men’). Lombardo has the right idea (‘the men, by their warhorses’). But Mitchell omits the epithet entirely: ‘Now all the other immortals and all the humans…’. He does the same at 24.677, showing that the omission here is a conscious choice—and a bad one. But he fares much better in the following lines. He translates the repeated οὖλον ὄνειρον … οὖλε ὄνειρε (2.6, 8) as ‘malicious dream … dream’, which is no more misleading than Fitzgerald (‘fatal dream … Sinister Dream’) or Lombardo (‘a wooly menace, a Dream … deadly Dream’: ‘wooly’, from the homonymous adjective, is clever, but if anything, οὖλος looks back to ὀλέσῃ (2.4)).

Now we come to θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν, repeated twice (2.8, 17), and κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιούς, repeated four times (2.11, 28, 51, 65). All the three earlier translators vary the first phrase (Fitzgerald: ‘amid the fast ships of Akhaia … to where the long ships lay’; Fagles: ‘to the fast Achaean ships … along the fast trim ships’; Lombardo seems to repeat exactly, but ‘shadows’ in the second phrase is not in the Greek: ‘go, deadly Dream, along the Greek ships … Shadows flew / Around the Greek ships’). Mitchell is in fact the only translator who faithfully repeats, although the phrase he repeats is by no means a literal translation: ‘to/at the army of the Achaeans’. Turning to the second phrase, we find that repetition is the norm (Fagles: ‘long-haired Achaeans’; Lombardo: ‘long-haired Greeks’). So too Mitchell, although again he does not give a literal translation: three times the dream commands Agamemnon to ‘arm the Achaeans’, and once (2.51) the heralds summon ‘all the Achaeans’.

We may worry that by straying so far from the literal meaning of the Greek, Mitchell is ignoring Homer (although comparison with these other translators shows his practice is far from egregious). But, in fact, he is paying very close attention. The force of κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιούς lies not in its literal meaning, but rather in the alliteration of κ/χ (which continues the alliteration of θωρῆξαί … κέλευσε or κέλευσε κηρύσσειν in the first half of the clauses). Further, the end of κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιούς echoes the end of θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν. Mitchell hears all these repeated sounds, and so his Dream goes to the ‘army of the Achaeans’ to tell Agamemnon to ‘arm the Achaeans’ (but first he assembles ‘all the Achaeans’ to test them). This is sensitive translation, and respects the Greek more than, say, literal but unmusical ‘beside the swift ships of the Achaians’ and ‘flowing-haired Achaians’.

So much for epithets. I finish by looking at the poetic quality of Mitchell’s translation, which is considerable. For Mitchell, ‘In translating Homer, clarity and rhythm are everything’.10 Clarity he seeks through careful diction (‘neither too formal nor too colloquial’, lix) and, yes, the omission of epithets, patronyms, and West’s spurious passages (he also uses stress accents and diereses in the text for all but the most common names; he uses Latinate forms). For rhythm, he uses a ‘minimally iambic five-beat line’ ( lix) that tends toward anapaestic or dactylic. This is a good choice. It suggests the rhythms of dactylic hexameter, but does not drag or wander the way English six-beat lines tend to. The rhythm is clear, but not overbearing. An example (Apollo looses his arrows on the Achaean camp, 1.43-52): He ended his prayer. And Apollo was swift to answer,
striding to Earth from the pinnacles of Olympus
filled with fury. His bow and his quiver were slung
on his shoulder. The arrows rattled with every step.
Down he strode, and his coming was like the night.
He dropped to one knee and drew back a deadly arrow,
and a dreadful twang rang out from the silver bow.
First he attacked the mules and the dogs, but soon
he shifted his aim and struck down the men themselves.
And the close-packed pyres of the dead kept burning, burning,
beside the Achaean ships, all day and all night.

Of the few epithets that Mitchell cuts, only ἀμφηρεφέα (1.45) might be missed, and even then not by many. He is sensitive to the use of enjambment in the Greek and to its alliteration: ‘filled with fury’ suggests the repetition of κ/χ in βῆ δὲ κατ’ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων χωόμενος κῆρ (1.44), while—in a line that does stray far from the Greek—the alliteration of ‘dropped … drew … deadly’ nevertheless echoes Homer’s alliterative ἕζετ’ ἔπειτ’ ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ’ ἰὸν ἕηκε (1.48). Mitchell’s last two lines greatly expand on Homer (αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί, 1.52): tastes will vary on this choice. But ‘and his coming was like the night’ (ὃ δ’ ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς, 1.47) is exactly right.

To quote Sheila Murnaghan’s review of the Knox-Fagles Iliad, ‘The physical book is lavishly produced, with heavy deckle-edged paper, large and clear type, a bound-in bookmark, and a rich gold and black dust jacket’11— again, Mitchell’s book echoes its predecessor. But it has earned the right to do so: except where the 1,000 missing lines will remove it from consideration, Mitchell’s Iliad deserves to be read as much as any other modern version.

The copy editing is superb. I note only a missing question mark on p. 55.


1. It’s Not All Greek to Him, 2011.09.30

2. Mitchell quotes Arnold at p. lix.

3. A third criticism, much discussed in the popular media, is Mitchell’s use of slang. It focusses on his translation of ἄλαστε (22.261) as ‘you son of a bitch’—which seems to me a fine solution.

4. Homer, Iliad (New York, 1990).

5. Homeri Ilias. Volumen prius, rhapsodias I-XII continens (Stuttgart, 1998), and Homerus Ilias volumen alterum, rhapsodiae XIII-XXIV (Munich, 2000).

6. Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Munich, 2001), and The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary (Oxford, 2011).

7. E.g., BMCR 2000.09.12 and 2001.06.21.

8. “Oral Poetics and the Homeric Doloneia” to be found at the Center for Hellenic Studies. The work is also now available in print: Dué, C., & Ebbott, M. Iliad 10 and the poetics of ambush: A multitext edition with essays and commentary. (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2010).

9. R. Fitzgerald (tr.), Homer: The Iliad (New York, 1974), and S. Lombardo (tr.) and S. Murnaghan, Homer: The Iliad (Indianapolis, 1997).

10. A Note from the Translator.

11. BMCR 02.01.05.