Series brings new life
to the Trojan War
Classical studies prof Lynn Kozak entertains with weekly recitals of Homer’s Iliad
By Byron Toben
“I Sing of Arms and the Man”, wrote Latin poet Virgil in his epic, The Aeneid, around 25 BCE. He was telling the story of Trojan warrior Aeneus, who had fled from the Trojan War to found early Rome. So blind poet Homer’s epic, The Iliad, about the Trojan war of around 800 BCE still had ‘legs’ in inspiring Virgil some 750 years later, as it has many others since. Indeed, many great works of literature are based on wars and many great writers became blind. See my selected summary at the end of this review.
Little is known of the personal life of Shakespeare, who incorporated many wars and battles into his works. Even less of Homer. They both wrote in metre, Shakespeare in iambic pentameter and Homer in dactylic hexameter. Both have been questioned as to whether they really wrote the works bearing their name, and in Homer’s case, whether he really existed at all.
Ms. Kuzak has a nice clear voice and often uses anachronisms to introduce some humorous relief.
Now comes along Lynn Kozak, professor of classical studies at McGill, with an increasingly popular weekly dramatic reading series of The Illiad. Held at the cosy Bar des Pins on Parc Avenue, they are dubbed Happy Hour Homer. I believe there have been eight such so far of which I have seen two.
Professor Kozak translates into English on the spot while reading from the Greek. Each episode has a different director. Playwright Joseph Shragge directed the first, McGill English prof Myrna Wyatt Selkirk another. Popular Paul Van Dyck (famous for his one man show of Milton’s Paradise Lost) also contributed. Each episode has been taped and is available on the Internet.
Ms. Kuzak has a nice clear voice and often uses anachronisms to introduce some humorous relief. For instance, in describing the family relationships of many of the characters, one to the other, she used a photo album, chattily snacking as she pointed out this or that one. (This would be helpful in discussing Russian novels as well.)
Later, when one warrior is gifted a chariot to fight in, the description of its attributes – double railings and such – sounds like a car salesman extolling its virtues. One portion had her pounding on an ancient Greek war drum for emphasis. It looked to me very like an Irish Bodran.
The Iliad is divided into 24 ‘books’. I have not figured out if each reading is a whole book or less.
While Shakespeare’s audiences believed in a single god (well, okay, three in one), they also believed in witches and other superstitious creatures as being real and not just imaginative. Homer’s audience was very polytheistic and not only believed in many gods but that they readily interbred with humans and caused fires or floods or fogs or plagues. They also had many jealousies between each other that is reflected in much of The Iliad.
I once managed to channel the late Damon Runyon to get his opinion on the musical Guys and Dolls, and would love to do so with Homer on The Iliad, but he’s too long gone and anyway, I don’t speak Greek. Nevertheless, I suspect he would give Professor Kozak an A plus on this series. Maybe that would inspire her to take on his companion piece, The Odyssey, in the future.
While The Iliad is the oldest surviving literary work from Europe, there are even older examples in other languages. The oldest in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh, written between 2400 and 2500 BCE in Sumerian. (I saw it revived at the Toronto Summerworks in 2012 AD.)
Next oldest would be the Mahabharata written in Sanskrit by one Vyasa around 400 BCE. This epic is ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined! Also in Sanskrit around that time is the Ramayana, ascribed to Valmiki. Like the Iliad, these deal with war and battles in poetic form.
In more modern times, Homeric influences can be found in Milton with Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, James Joyce with Ulysses and even William Faulkner with As I Lay Dying. Like Homer, both Milton and Joyce were afflicted with eye problems leading to blindness.
Happy Hour Homer continues each Monday evening at 5:30 at Bar des Pins, 3714 Parc.
No fee or minimum.
Food and drinks available for purchase.
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.