Homer/John Dolan, “The War Nerd Iliad” (2017) – It would be hard to overstate the impact John Dolan has had on my education. I began reading the War Nerd, written under the identity of “Gary Brecher,” after a friend linked one of his articles to me early on in my time in college- early enough that I was one of the ding dongs speculating, “COULD Brecher be Dolan???” While I pay my homage to the Gary Brecher persona, I’d have to say the Dolan half was probably more important to my education.
There’s a simple reason for this- I went to hippie school, sans requirements, and loaded my plate with history and sociology classes. I never took a literature class. Dolan’s writings were Lit 101 (and a few extra classes alongside) for me. The list of writers I picked up because of his recommendations is nearly coextensive with the list of my favorite writers. So I get why the man himself might prefer Gary Brecher, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Dolan. I’m glad the interests of the two — literature and war — coincided for this particular volume. Moreover, it’d also be hard to overstate how important the Iliad — or, anyway, the children’s Iliad I had — was to me as a child. It was my favorite story, though I was disappointed to find that the grown-up versions were generally slogs. Probably worth it, especially for people whose interest in literature comes to a large extent through history, but slogs nevertheless.
Dolan sees the slog quality as an injustice to the poem. The Iliad was meant to be recited aloud- closer a to campfire tale than a school poem. It’s meant to be gripping, a real emotional rollercoaster, and it’s not meant to stint on the goods- gore, gloating, gods, descriptions of riches, feasts, and other things that bored peasants passing some time in the winter want to imagine. Dolan tries to bring this quality back to the Iliad for modern readers of English. He does so via prose translation. Dolan argues that sentence and paragraph structure does form modern readers what meter and rhyme did for our ancestors… and moreover, who reads epic poems today (I know, I know… a few of my fb friends)? He wants this read.
He delivers, right to a sweet spot that few works really go for these days (arguably, Fury Road did). The characters are more alive than ever before (in English, anyway)- angst teen death-dealer Achilles, aggrieved manager Odysseus, decent doomed Hector, vain late-stage-mob-boss Agamemnon, original fuckboi Paris, etc. He does something really special with the gods- their human qualities come through clearly but they never lose a truly weird, eerie quality. The granular, cynical grasp on the politics of war that made the War Nerd such a success comes out in his depictions of the Greek war effort, all squabbling chiefs, mission drift, and chaos. And he delivers the goods- the battle scenes have all the chaos, blood, pain, confusion you could want, but also the sheer joy of rage and action that draws so many to this story and stories like it. Dolan may have chosen prose here, but the poet is still there in his similes and apostrophes and probably other figures I’m missing because, you know, didn’t take any literature classes.
At bottom, the Iliad is about an alien world, but with just enough familiar features to give us moderns some grasping points. Often, these points encourage — delude — people (whole generations, in some instances- cf the British ruling class in the 18th and 19th centuries) into thinking that these alien people actually were like us, or like what we could (or even should) be. Sometimes, sick of that, people go the opposite direction- claiming it’s all so different you’ll never understand it, except maybe if you immerse yourself in these languages, become a difficult prig about it, etc. In his take on the Iliad, Dolan illuminates an alien world in all of its splendor and terror — a lot of both — in a way that is relatable to us today, while never losing sight of the gulf between us and the Homeric. That balancing act alone is supremely difficult, let alone making it readable and entertaining. But Dolan has been making the alien seem familiar and the familiar alien, in his literary, historical, and (for lack of a better term) political writing for a long time now- and making it look easy, the sure sign of a master. *****