The Iliad, by Homer, Translated by E.V. Rieu

A century ago this review would have been unnecessary. As a civilised, educated person you would already have been more than familiar with Homer’s Iliad – probably in the original Greek. Perhaps, like the doomed poet Rupert Brooke, you would have declaimed it across the Aegean on your way to Gallipoli; or carried the copy you won as a school prize to the trenches, as both consolation and inspiration. It is, after all, the first and arguably greatest work in Western literature about men and war.

So why is it so relatively little-read today? One reason, perhaps, is that it has become a victim of its own near-legendary status. It has a reputation so dauntingly huge that few dare broach it for fear of being either tragically disappointed or bored rigid by its epic worthiness.

WRITTEN SOMETIME BETWEEN 760 AND 710 BC, AND ORIGINALLY DESIGNED, OF COURSE, TO BE RECITED RATHER THAN READ, THE ILIAD CAME BEFORE THE MAIN GREEK PHILOSOPHERS, THE ROMAN EMPIRE, CHRISTIANITY, THE RENAISSANCE AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT. THIS IS WESTERN CIVILISATION IN ITS RAWEST, WILDEST, MOST UNTUTORED STATE.

But The Iliad, which I read only in full (and in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin translation) myself the other day, is not remotely disappointing, boring or worthy. For lovers of literature it’s a thrilling opportunity to witness the birth of the canon, for movie buffs it’s a chance to meet those Greek gods and heroes in their original incarnations, for war enthusiasts it has violence that makes Saving Private Ryan look like Mary Poppins, and for drugs connoisseurs it’s quite possibly the trippiest thing you’ll experience outside the influence of LSD.

It’s a strange, fragmentary work which begins ­in ­medias res. The Trojan wars have been raging for years in virtual stalemate, with the Greeks still camped by their ships on the beach, and the Trojans still secure in their city of Ilium.

At this point the Greeks are in trouble. Though fate has decided they’re eventually going to win, they’ve just lost their best fighter – the arrogant, petulant, angry, fickle, cruel and deeply unlikeable Achilles – who has downed tools and retired to his tent in an epic sulk, ­having ­been slighted by King Agamemnon, who has stolen his mistress.

We have entered a world whose values and outlook predate almost all the cultural influences that have shaped the way we think. Written sometime between 760 and 710 BC, and originally designed, of course, to be recited rather than read, The Iliad came before the main Greek philosophers, the Roman Empire, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This is Western civilisation in its rawest, wildest, most untutored state.

What, then, are its priorities? One, definitely, is piety. Neglect the gods, who control everything, and you are doomed. Show them real devotion, on the other hand, and they’ll see you right, as for example Zeus does to his beloved Achilles. (Well, until Achilles’s luck runs out – as the Fates have decreed it must, for not even gods can overrule the Fates). There’s a delightful moment in Book One, where Homer describes in loving detail how an ox is ritually slaughtered and its choicest bits are cooked over an open fire, put on skewers and offered to gods. “Wow,” you think. “This is literature’s first kebab barbecue.”

Equally important is personal courage. This, remember, is the Age of Heroes and wars appear to be won not by massed troops in disciplined formation, but rather by the extraordinary prowess of mighty individuals. They operate according to a pagan rule book rather shocking till you get used to it. For example, having killed their enemy in single combat their aim is to strip him of his valuable armour and then mutilate his body. In order to avoid this collective dishonour, those on the opposing side will resist with equal ferocity. “But he’s dead, it’s over!” you want to protest. No one’s listening to you, though. Their world, their weird code.

Read the rest at the Conservative.

We Blues Are the Real Greens

Once I took part in a panel discussion on climate change at an Oxford literary festival. I began by explaining to the audience how very much I loved nature – probably at least as much as they did; how I liked nothing better than wild swimming in the River Wye, or striding across Scottish glens, with their patchwork-quilt browns, greens and purples, or riding across the matchlessly beautiful English countryside…

But really, I might just as well not have bothered, for the audience had already made up their minds. Because I’m a conservative, it naturally followed that I must be selfish, greedy, wedded to my unsustainable lifestyle, a denier of science, and hell-bent on economic growth at the expense of our planet’s future.

This caricature is a big problem for conservatives. Some of them get so desperate to prove their critics wrong that you see them embracing all manner of half-baked eco-nonsense, as we saw in Britain not so long ago when David Cameron campaigned under the slogan “Vote Blue, Go Green”. But it really isn’t necessary. The clue’s in the name: Conservatives are – and always have been – the world’s best conservationists.

Partly, it’s a function of our rural roots. Not all conservatives hunt, shoot, fish, or farm, of course, but the principles are in our DNA: a deep sympathy with and understanding of nature, but untainted by metropolitan sentimentality. If you’re rearing livestock, it’s clearly in your interests to breed healthy, contented animals; if you’re running a shooting estate or maintaining a fishing river, again it matters that your quarry and its environment are sustainably managed. You love and respect your animals but you’re not squeamish about killing them for sport, population management or food.

Read the rest in the Conservative.