On one of the recent occasions when I found myself wandering through a Barnes and Noble store, I came across the Iliad. The story of the Trojan war was one that greatly captivated my imagination as a young boy, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands on it and actually read it in its entirety. Upon opening its pages, I was surprised to find the layout to be different than I had anticipated. A recent translation by Ralph Blakely, it is an attempt to represent the epic poem in a prose form, rather than lines of poetry. According to the explanation he provides in the preface, prose is actually a more accurate representation of the poem, at least in the English language. His claim is that it more precisely captures – and therefore more adequately expresses – the spirit of the poem, in a way which English modes of poetry are not capable of doing.
Out of this prose rendition of the Iliad is generated an expression I found to be particularly fascinating, partly because of its versatility, and partly because of its elusiveness. As a precursor to many crucial portions of dialogue found throughout, the phrase winged words is employed in order to describe the nature of what is being said. Here is Blakely’s commentary on it which he includes in his preface:
The poet frequently uses the term winged words. I have read various explanations for this, but remain unconvinced about the meaning. I simply cannot figure from context just how words with wings differ from those without. So I have brought the term into English in the places where it occurs and will leave it to the reader to vex this puzzle. (15)
That being said, I myself found the term winged words to be somehow mysteriously invigorating, appealing to a deep sense of nobility, passion, and honor which resided in my mind and heart – waiting to be stirred up by just the right circumstance. The imagery evoked by the act of bestowing wings to the words themselves is moving: it infuses their efficacy with the capacity for soaring. What is being uttered in these instances are not mere words, but rather a special type of speech that draws from a deep well of power and inspiration – therefore inevitably propelling the speaker and listener to greater heights. As I mentioned above, it is also inherently a wonderfully versatile concept, for it effortlessly adapts to a wide variety of settings, without losing even a touch of its potency.
Because of the compelling nature of the union of these two words, I thought I might share a few excerpts which contain them. Out of consideration for the original intent of the translator, I will relay multiple quotations at length in order to highlight the variety of contexts in which the phrase is utilized. This will allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about what it may mean, and hopefully (similar to myself) grow to appreciate it along the way. Perhaps inspiration may even be sparked to pick up the whole work itself and read it cover to cover.
(For clarification of the following excerpts, it is worthwhile to note that Homer refers to the Greeks as the Danaans, Argives, or Acheans.)
The injured Greek hero Diomedes (son of Tydeus) prays to Athena, and receives strength to continue the fight:
So he spoke in prayer, and Pallas Athena heard him. She made his knees and feet nimble, and his hands dexterous. She stood close to him and spoke with winged words: “Take courage now, in your fight against the Trojans. The limitless strength of your father has come into your breast. You have as much as the shield-handling horseman Tydeus. I took away the cloudy mist before your eyes that was there before, so that you may easily recognize those who are gods, as well as men. Now, if a god comes and challenges you, remember you must not fight all out with the immortal gods as you would with mortals. But if Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, ever comes into the fight, wound her with sharp bronze.” (107)
Patroclus, son of Menoetius and friend of Achilles, comes across one of his wounded comrades in the Greek camp while the Trojans are pressing near and on the verge of overrunning their encampment:
Seeing Eurypylus, the valiant son of Menoetius took pity on him, and, choking back tears, spoke to him with winged words: “Oh you miserable commanders and counselors of the Danaans, how dreadful it is that you are about to gorge the swift dogs with your white fat so far from your friends and your fatherland! But come now, noble-born Eurypylus, you are a hero, so tell me this. Will the Acheans yet somehow hold off huge Hector, or will they be wasted, being beaten down under his spear?” (237)
The Greek hero Ajax (referred to as Aias in this translation) springs into action at a request by a messenger for aid in the fighting at another location, speaking to his comrade Ajax the Lesser (son of Oileus):
So spoke the herald, and great Telamonian Aias did not disobey. Immediately, he said to the son of Oileus in winged words: “Aias, both Teucer and I should go there and make a stand, rousing up the Danaans to a stout fight. You and mighty Lycomedes continue the fight here, and I will return as soon as I have protected the others well.” (248-249)
Hector (son of Priam, the Trojan king), the Trojan’s preeminent hero, boasts to Patroclus as he triumphs in their duel against each other:
Hector Priamson came close to finish Patroclus with his spear, boasting with winged words: “Patroclus, once you claimed you would plow over our city and take off with our Trojan women. Though they are free, you claimed you would take them in your ships to your beloved homeland. You fool! You longed to fight for the women in front of the fast horses of Hector, even though you were on foot. With my spear, I am foremost among the war-loving Trojans. Afterward, I protect them because I have to. But the buzzards there will eat you. Scoundrel, Achilles is brave but he did not come to your aid, he who ordered you to come here and make a stand against me: ‘Do not return to the hollow ships, Patroclus, charioteer, not until you have sliced man-killing Hector’s tunic to pieces and leave it bloody around his chest.’ This is what he said. You were stupid to let him persuade you.” (336-337)
Here is a portion of the extraordinary exchange between Achilles and Priam. After the Trojan king implores the Greek hero to return the body of his son Hector – slain by Achilles in an epic duel – Achilles responds:
Looking compassionately on the gray head and the gray beard, he spoke to Priam with winged words: “Ah, you wretched man, you bear up under much trouble that weighs on your heart! How did you dare come to the Achean ships alone to look with your eyes at a man who has slain your many and worthy sons? Your heart must now be of iron.” (482)
If words could truly grow wings and take flight, they might sound something like what we find in this epic tale.