Published by: Walker Books (1st October 2015)
My Sunday best this week is not a novel; instead, it’s a Homeric retelling by a renowned author, given yet more depth and meaning by superlative illustration.
Most kids who like reading delve at some point into the realms of Greek mythology; for the enduring popularity of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, you only have to look at Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson series, featuring half-human kids with Olympian parentage and astonishing powers, as well as the library-loads of anthologies by luminaries such as Geraldine McCaughrean. The Odyssey, with its variegated cast of monsters and marvels and its sly, indomitable hero, has frequently been retold for children, too (I remember a highly dubious televised version shown at primary school, which, at the time, I adored). But the Iliad, full of bloodshed, anger, and the gulf between men and gods, is a trickier proposition.
To me, Gillian Cross’ Iliad achieves the near-impossible; it conveys the complexities of mortal and immortal motivation within this great poem of glory and death in a clear, direct and memorable register, simple enough for children and sophisticated enough for classically-minded adults. And Neil Packer’s images, full of helmeted heads, towering gods and twining, interwoven Greek script, are breath-taking. The figures’ distorted scale gives the impression (wholly fitting to the source text) that the camera has ‘zoomed in’ on a significant moment on the battlefield, or that the disproportionate gods have taken a casual hand in the affairs of men. Packer’s black ships, his showers of spears, his flattened, twisting heroes and his colour scheme all suggest that the most vivid of black-figure pottery has come to life, transporting the reader deep into the rich, precarious world of the epic.
Cross’ elegant prose, meanwhile, frequently has the impact of poetry:
“Looking down from high Olympus, Zeus listened to Achilles’ prayer.
And he granted half of it”
and she is adept at giving the reader the essential flavour of Homeric similes (“as loyal and savage as mountain wolves”). This gorgeous, enticing volume provides an introduction to the goddesses’ feud over the golden apple before the opening of the Iliad proper, as well as a look at what happens afterwards – Achilles’ death and the Fall of Troy – and a thought-provoking epilogue, “Is The Iliad a true story?” But the retelling of the poem itself is undoubtedly the main event. From the poignant detail of Hector’s baby son, Astyanax, who cries with fear at the sight of his father’s helmet, to the heart-breaking moment when Priam ransoms Hector’s body from his killer (“I’ve done what no other father could bear – put my lips to the hand that killed my son”), this Iliad is spare, limpid and superb – the work of two masters, equally matched.