“Yes, sir. Your youngest son….”
“Shine the light on your face.”
Soos, this is my youngest son.
Soos is my herald. He must be…”
“11, sir. Queen Neday’s child.”
“Of course. Your mother was my eighth, full, wife…
Now, Manto–––tell me truthfully:
Have you killed your first Greek?”
“I think so, sir. Today.
When the car stopped I shot one in the back.”
“Who had the reins?”
“The Prince Aeneas, sir.”(War Music, 2 Kings, pg. 45-46)
Thus does Christopher Logue welcome us to Troy, and invite us into the halls of Priam, king of the Trojans. It is a dismal scene, indeed. Christopher Logue, modernist poet, veteran of the British Army, and dedicated anti-war activist, began the project of recreating the Iliad as a modern poem in 1959 for a BBC program. From then until his death in 2011, Logue continued his passion project of adapting the Iliad, book by book, into a contemporary, free verse epic. That Logue knew no Greek was of little consequence: like Ezra Pound’s Cathay before him, Logue’s adaptations of the Iliad took ancient texts and told them anew, informed by the politics and cultural context of his day.
Relying on other English translations, Logue’s Iliad adaptations, published in five successive books over 40 years, throttle forward with the tension of a Hollywood drama. The publisher’s note advertises Cold Calls (Faber and Faber, 2005), Logue’s last book in the unfinished project, as “a piece of performance-art for the page rather than the stage.” That is quite right. For every Classics student who has groaned at the Iliad’s long catalogue of ships––full of minor characters from every backwater fishing village––or Homer’s lengthy descriptions of animal sacrifice, Logue shakes his readers awake and shocks them with his boundless imagination.
A part-time actor and former screenwriter, Logue’s familiarity with television informs his flamboyant, energetic writing. As the armies of Greece and Troy make a truce, letting Paris and Menelaus fight man-to-man for Helen, Logue grabs us by the wrist and hastens us to the front lines, to stand in hushed awe as reverent Hector, towering Prince of Troy, prays to Zeus for protection over the newly established peace:
“‘God of All Gods, Most Holy and Most High,
Imperial Lord of Earth, Sire of the Night…
We ask You from our hearts to let us end
Through just one death our memorable war.’
This was Prince Hector’s prayer,
Tenderly, softly prayed.
And as the silence that came after it
Increased the depth and wonder of the day,
The heroes filled their drinking cups with wine… and sipped;
And what in them was noble, grew.”(War Music, The Husbands, pg. 118)
Peace! After nine long, miserable years of war, peace! And as we gaze at reverent Hector, Logue prods us, and whispers to look around. There, Priam with the offering. And there, the drum beats its approval. And from the crowd, that war-weary crowd of disillusioned veterans, peace rushes down like a roaring river, distant at first––so soft––then louder, and louder:
‘Amen…’ (but stronger now) and now…
Is carried up and down the measured ground.”(War Music, The Husbands, pg. 119)
Logue’s War Music discards the taxidermied translations of sterile academics. With cinematic vision and flourish, Logue revivifies Homer into an epic for our times as well. But Logue’s refreshingly modern technique is important because it serves his thematic message about the Iliad’s everlasting relevance. Logue begins by making the characters sympathetic, and impressing their plight upon us. But at the moment when we begin to pity the poor sops caught in this sordid tragedy, Logue’s fresh translation horrifies us with the thought that Homer is not ancient history, but a perpetual retelling of the human condition. One is reminded of Donne: “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The excerpt at the introduction to this piece opens the second Book of Kings in War Music. Having first wandered through the Greek camp, and eavesdropped on Achilles’s midnight lament to his mother, hot tears falling fast, as the hero recalls the history of his calamities and catches us up to speed, Logue then ushers us into the dark halls of aged Priam, deep in the heart of Troy.
We discover first, to our amazement, that Troy is poor. The rooms are dark and empty––apparently war means that torches are rationed even in the royal palace––and Priam is perched atop not a golden throne, but a small chair that has to be carried around to different rooms of the house. For a moment, we are disoriented; the Iliad clearly establishes that Troy is wealthy. Full of the orientalizing tropes of classical Greco-Roman literature, the Greeks conceive of Troy as one of those great Eastern empires, laden with riches, corrupted by their greed into moral slovenliness, full of beautiful women and expensive slaves. After all, as Thersites and Achilles point out, that is why the Greeks are here: to steal all of Troy’s fabled wealth.
But Logue rethinks Troy, converts it into a developing country, and flips the Trojan War from a clash of empires into a story of colonization by wealthy Westerners. The elements for this conversion are all found in Homer’s Iliad. For example, scattered throughout the Iliad are hints of Greek technological superiority. One of the unanswered questions of the epic is whether Achilles really is invulnerable, save his famous heel, or if he only appears so because of his highly sophisticated armor, crafted by a god, and his elite bodyguard corps. In Logue, the bloody melee over Patroclus’s body becomes not only a contest of pride, but also a scramble for the prized armor of Achilles, whose technology the Trojans cannot replicate (the Greeks, meanwhile, can––Hephaestus makes an even better set for Achilles right away). Many readers have noted the anachronisms of Logue. There are helicopters waiting on the dunes for Agamemnon. The Greek soldiers, burying their dead in the opening book’s plague, wear World War I-era gas masks. But what has gone largely unnoticed is that all of the technological anachronism in Logue is on the side of the Greeks, while the Trojans, like poor Manto, ride chariots into battle. One is reminded of the myth of Polish cavalry charging at German Panzer divisions. The Trojan leaders are always dukes, a decidedly pre-modern term for a pre-modern nation.
The undertones of Western imperialism against an orientalized Eastern foe, present in the Iliad, come to the forefront of Logue’s landscape. In Homer’s epic, the Greeks all seem quite normal to the Western mind while the Trojans have all the ‘exotic’ allies. After the conclusion of the events in the Iliad, the Amazons, led by the legendarily beautiful Queen Penthesilea, come to fight for Troy. As recounted in the Aeneid, Memnon, king of Ethiopia, arrives with an army of Africans and Indians to fight for Troy. In short, the Trojan War is full of fantastic stories of unbridled women warriors and faceless hordes from the East––recurring, orientalizing tropes in Greco-Roman literature.
Logue’s Troy is governed like a modern dictatorship: a country, ruled by a senile, feeble, old fool, that relies upon one, indispensable man––the heroic Prince Hector––for its security. The natural wealth of the land is hoarded by Priam in his palace, while child soldiers like Manto fill the ranks of his army. Before he leaves for battle, Logue’s Hector laments that he is leading an army of youths––and children. There are hints of child soldiery in the Trojan War narrative, but these are always explained away by artificially aging up the characters. For example, as recounted in the Aeneid, Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, comes to avenge his fallen father and eventually leads the sack of Troy. The savage brute cuts down Priam’s last son before his own eyes and beheads the great king of Troy, leaving his carcass to rot as a faceless ruin upon the shore. In some ancient vase paintings, Neoptolemus is even depicted bludgeoning Priam to death with the mutilated corpse of his infant grandson. But, chronologically, Neoptolemus cannot be more than 10 years old. The conclusion is so absurd that every storyteller ages up Neoptolemus to a young adult to explain away the discrepancy.
There are child brides as well. Although it is widely accepted that children were wed in ancient societies, modern retellings, such as 2004’s Troy, skip over this unpleasant fact, aging up all the women involved, so that Hollywood filmmakers can justify their marketable sex scenes. In a short passage in The Husbands, the Lady Cassandra leads her sister-in-law Helen to the walls of Troy:
“‘Lady… my lady… We must go.’
Cassandra, Priam’s youngest girl, says as she lifts
The needle out of Helen’s hand, who turns
Towards this serious 13-year-old-bride––
As she once was––and lets herself be led.”(War Music, The Husbands, pg. 103)
Every Classics student will immediately understand why Logue felt it necessary to remind us that Cassandra is only 13. In just a few weeks, the virgin priestess is going to be brutally, horrifically raped by a savage Greek king, while she clings for dear life to a statue of Athena, praying for a salvation that never comes. Although Logue has all the skills of cinema, this is not Brad Pitt’s Troy. There are no loving, tender caresses between mature adults flashing abs and bared breasts for the posters. In War Music, one finally understands that children are being raped and children are being sent to die in battle. Instead of smoothing over the disturbing implications of the story, Logue produces a Trojan army of child soldiers, fighting for their dictator’s child brides, against the Western colonizers.
Logue’s adaptation is clearly informed by his progressive politics. There are such class-conscious asides as this:
“But we who are under the shields know
Our enemy marches at the head of the column;
And yet we march!
The voice we obey is the voice of the enemy;
Yet we obey!
And he who is forever talking about enemies
Is himself the enemy!”(War Music, Patrocleia, pg. 162)
But Logue rarely interrupts his narrative to deliberately insert a blunt, political message. Rather, he simply refuses to sidestep the questions Homer left behind: child soldiers, child brides, and feudal apologia.
Although the Greeks possess the advantages of technological anachronism, Logue takes care to disperse his Homer throughout history, so that no one can relegate the Iliad to any era or any specific, cultural context. In the same speech in which Achilles accuses Agamemnon of keeping his helicopter on the dunes, ready to depart the moment things go bad, Achilles also threatens to beat the king to death with a mace. Although there is one mention of Greeks carrying guns, the fighting itself is hand-to-hand, and pre-modern.
Moreover, Logue takes care to address the archaic elements of the Iliad by retelling them in a contemporary cultural context. For one, Logue wants to make it clear that the Iliad is not just a bawdy story retold by drunken bards, but also a theological and didactic story about the gods. To that end, the titles of War Music reflect Judeo-Christian books from the Hebrew Bible. The opening chapters are 1 Kings and 2 Kings, in clear imitation of the Hebrew histories. In the Iliad, Zeus warns that he so outstrips the other gods, he is like a god to them as well. Logue takes this a step further by making Zeus the capital-g, monotheistic God, ruling over a court of lesser immortals, much like Milton’s God in Paradise Lost. One of War Music’s most revealing scenes is titled God Lives Forever, and explores the Epicurean theological implications necessitated by such a long life: if God lives forever, how could He really care about the plight of mortals? The animal sacrifice scenes of the Iliad, so uncivilized to the modern conscience, are retold with tender care and delicacy and intimacy so that even the modern reader understands the religious significance of these rituals. In short, Logue’s adaptation embodies the longevity of the Iliad: a story that tells itself over and over, in every nation, for every generation. We want to read the Iliad and walk away and think, in our quaint, modern way, that this story was a remnant of a more savage time, from a less civilized world. We want to believe that liberal democracy and the global interconnectedness brought about by free trade prevent such horrors from ever happening again. But Logue’s adaptation jumps out at the audience, challenges such condescending and naive dismissals, and refuses to allow the reader to archaize its story or relegate it to a forgotten era. By retelling the Iliad for every time and every place, Logue reasserts the horrifying message of Homer: it can happen here, too.
With the fervor of its political and theological themes, the irrepressible energy of War Music helps the modern reader understand Homer’s epic not as a corpse to be autopsied under the cold lights of the seminar room, but a national mythos suitable for the church, the (movie) theater, the bar, and the Rose Garden, all at once. Nevertheless, Logue’s War Music is fundamentally not subversion, but rather an attempt to reinforce the message and lessons of Homer’s Iliad. As much as War Music decries colonization, Western imperialism, and orientalism, its very existence sustains the supremacy of the Iliad within the hierarchy of the ‘Western canon.’
The validity of a literary ‘canon’ has long been debated by academics for its cultural implications. Perhaps one charitable and rather modest argument in favor of a literary ‘canon’ is that at some point we must, each of us, choose which books we will spend our short and precious time reading. Given the practical limitations of our mortality, it may be helpful to turn to certain authors who have been exceptionally insightful on the human condition, and thus whose works have given many others before us comfort. Such an argument frames the ‘canon’ not as a dreaded summer readings assignment, but rather a short list of recommendations curated by class survey. Yet even this limited assertion relies upon Enlightenment-esque beliefs, such as the premise that there is, in fact, such a thing as a universal human condition. And if there is a ‘Western canon,’ then is its cultural dominance over the arts a form of aesthetic colonialism? Is it a form of prejudice to say that characters and lessons in a Greek story, told through Greek eyes, are more universally applicable than a similar story in a different cultural or linguistic context?
War Music has no intention of subverting the Iliad: the rebukes of imperialism, driven by the insatiable greed of despots, are not novel introductions, but core elements of Homer’s story that Logue seeks to reintroduce to the modern world. War Music thus demonstrates one motivation for adaptation, as a work in service to its source. But can an adaptation that explicitly attempts to subvert its source, and resist the entrenched power structure of the ‘canon’ succeed?
In 1990, Sir Derek Walcott, a St. Lucian poet, published the epic poem Omeros, a Caribbean response to Homer. The story takes place on Walcott’s native island, nicknamed the “Helen of the West Indies” for a large naval engagement the British and French fought there during the War of American Independence. In Omeros, the indigenous Hector competes with Achille, a descendant of kidnapped slaves from Africa, for the love of Helen, the indigenous housemaid of a retired British officer. It is a post-colonial tragedy, one that explores the legacy of Western imperialism, the heroism of indigenous life, and the dehumanization of the Middle Passage and its aftermath.
Throughout the epic, Achille strives to understand his own identity by making sense of his name. In a mystical conversation with his father Afolabe, Achille reveals that he has forgotten his African name and does not understand his English name:
“AFOLABE: Achille. What does the name mean? I have forgotten the one / That I gave you. But it was, it seems, many years ago. / What does it mean?
ACHILLE: Well, I too have forgotten. / Everything was forgotten. You also. I do not know….
AFOLABE: A name means something. The qualities desired in a son… every name is a blessing, / since I am remembering the hope I had for you as a child. / Unless the sound means nothing. Then you would be nothing. / Did they think you were nothing in that other kingdom? …
ACHILLE: In the world I come from, / we accept the sounds we were given. Men, trees, water.”(Omeros, XXV.iii, pg. 135-136)
Did they think you were nothing in that other kingdom? Through the epic, Walcott attempts to establish an independence from the condescending pity of foreign sentimentalists and the scorn of cultural supremacists alike. He depicts, in loving detail, not only the realisms of post-colonial life, but the fullness and vibrancy of a culture formed from the shards of many displaced or out-of-place peoples. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, Walcott declared in his Nobel lecture:
“By writers even as refreshing as Graham Greene, the Caribbean is looked at with elegiac pathos, a prolonged sadness… but there is something alien and ultimately wrong in the way such a sadness, even a morbidity, is described by English, French, or some of our exiled writers. It relates to a misunderstanding of the light and the people on whom the light falls.
These writers describe the ambitions of our unfinished cities, their unrealized, homiletic conclusion, but the Caribbean city may conclude just at that point where it is satisfied with its own scale, just as Caribbean culture is not evolving but already shaped. Its proportions are not to be measured by the traveller or the exile, but by its own citizenry and architecture. To be told you are not yet a city or a culture requires this response. I am not your city or your culture.”(Walcott, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory)
But the history of colonialism, as Walcott notes throughout Omeros, casts a long shadow on the independence of its former subjects. In one startling, imagined scene near the end of the poem, Walcott has a conversation with Omeros (Homer) himself. Whilst mimicking Dante’s conversation with his own predecessor Virgil in the Inferno, Walcott lets slip to Omeros an astonishing claim: “‘I never read it,’ I said. ‘Not all the way through.’” (Omeros, LVI.iii, pg. 280) Can Walcott be believed? How could that possibly be true?
In the 1919 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot suggested that the ‘canon’ is a malleable phenomenon, in which older works not only influence their progeny, but are also themselves augmented by later art:
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone…. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it…. the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”(T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent)
In Eliot’s conception, the Iliad itself changes because Walcott wrote Omeros. Just as one reads the clear allusions to and themes borrowed from the Iliad in Walcott’s work, one will also, having been informed by Walcott, better appreciate the significance of the questions of imperialism in Homer’s epic. But even this framing of the ‘canon’ less as a pyramid of literary authority, but rather a series of works in dialogue, informed by and informing each other, presents its own problems. Although Eliot’s framework frees later works of art from being bound in explicit service to their sources, it also ties them to the structure of the ‘canon.’ Thus, even acts of literary and cultural subversion, like Walcott’s Omeros, far from supplanting the ‘canon,’ augment and support the entrenched power structure of literary hierarchy. Omeros is not an adaptation like Logue’s War Music, but it is inextricably linked to its source, and raises questions as to how far one work inspired by another can stretch its native yoke.
Homer’s ancient, canonical status also leads one to question just how far his influence extends. Near the end of his life, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy began work on a novella about an eponymous renegade Avar warlord named Hadji Murat. Published posthumously in 1917 (an abridged version appeared in 1912), the story is a short drama describing border life in the Russian Empire and the difficult decisions one must make when caught between an imperial power and an envious liege lord. On its face, Tolstoy’s thin, modern novella seems quite removed from Homer’s ponderous, ancient epic. But Homer towers over all war stories, and one, almost unconsciously, begins to draw connections back to the father of western war literature.
Perhaps the Iliad’s most famous and important scene is the embassy of King Priam to Achilles in Book 24, wherein the two enemies fall silent and wordlessly survey each other. By gazing at each other, for a brief moment, the enemies recognize their shared humanity, and can even appreciate that which is noble and admirable in the other. Likewise, in the middle of Hadji Murat, the rebel hero comes face to face with Prince Vorontsov, his longtime foe, general of the Russian Empire. Behind a facade of diplomatic words, the former enemies share a dialogue of the eyes and come to understand each other. Both Achilles and Hadji are famous warlords, whose lieges, envious of their subordinates’ success, quarrel with them. Both Achilles and Hadji are then forced to adopt awkward positions toward their erstwhile enemies: Achilles prays for Trojan victories so that the dying Greeks will cry out for Achilles’ help, while Hadji flees to the Russian army for protection against his own people. And finally, both men, having temporarily disengaged themselves from the wars in which they have been involved their entire adult lives, are ultimately lured back into war for the sake of their loved ones.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a war story from the Russian Empire––which consciously fabricated its national mythos in emulation of the Greco-Roman Byzantine Empire––would find itself read in indebtedness to the Greco-Roman war tradition. But what exactly is the relationship of the Iliad to Hadji Murat? Although Tolstoy read Homer devotedly, there is no explicit allusion to Iliad anywhere in Hadji Murat. The connections one can draw, Tolstoy leaves to his reader to derive and formulate on her own.
And thus one returns to the problem of the ‘canon.’ Are all war stories necessarily indebted to the legacy of the Iliad, because it came before the rest? Can a war story ever be written that escapes the long reach of Homer? Christopher Logue wrote a translation of Homer that brought out all the nasty and brutish elements of the Iliad in spectacular detail, and forced the modern reader to grapple with them in the present. Sir Walcott wrote a work of subversion in response to the Iliad, but its very existence simultaneously elevated the Iliad by acknowledging its favored position in the Western literary consciousness. And Hadji Murat, a work separated by culture, language, geography, and some 3000 years from Iliad, still cannot run out from under the shadow of its towering predecessor. For all Western war stories, the Iliad came first. The question that remains is, in all the many years to come, whenever a war story is told, regardless of language, time, and place, will the storyteller ever be anyone other than Homer? Or are all war stories doomed to be nothing more than footnotes to Homer?