The Five Minute Iliad Other Instant Classics: Great Books For The Short Attention Spanby Greg Nagan
From the author of A Prairie Home Companion's beloved "Five-Minute/i>
Was Homer really blind, or was that just his shtick? Was Dante a righty or a lefty? Why aren't there any pictures of Jane Austen in a bikini? What made Oscar so Wilde? How much did Hemingway? These are just some of the many great questions of Western literature ignored in this book.
From the author of A Prairie Home Companion's beloved "Five-Minute Classics" comes The Five-Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classics, a witty and profane lampoon of the Western literary canon -- the Spinal Tap of literature.
"I will never write such wordy trash again," Leo Tolstoy said of War and Peace after reading Homer in the original Greek. Tolstoy's pledge inspired humorist Greg Nagan to whet his double-edged verbal sword and offer this gleefully twisted take on what contemporary readings of the Great Books say about our society today.
From The Iliad to On the Road, these fifteen parodies provide a riotous romp through Western civilization (one version of it, anyway) from Homer to Kerouac, from Ancient Greece to Postwar America, from the Lyrical Epic to the Breathless Gush. Nagan's mirthful mayhem will delight those who've read the Great Books, and those who haven't read them will find these literary caricatures entertaining in their own right.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: The Iliad by Homer (700 B.C.)
No, my friend,
I have no desire to fight the blithe immortals.
But if you're a man who eats the crops of the earth,
a mortal born for death -- here, come closer,
the sooner you will meet your day to die!
Homer (no relation) was a blind poet who lived in Greece around the ninth or eighth century B.C., and, as a result of the curious Greek dating system, was apparently born about eighty years after he died. It is believed the Iliad and the Odyssey, his two surviving works, were both originally oral rather than written works, which goes a long way toward explaining how a blind guy could have written them thousands of years before the invention of Braille. The Iliad is a vital piece of literature for all readers, because all the greatest writers of Western Civilization have been alluding to it for eons ("alluding to" being Greek for "stealing from"). This is an abridged translation, meaning I have skipped all those parts of the epic that might have been troublesome to translate and have made up the rest. Also, it does not rhyme and has no meter. I assure the reader that in all other regards this is almost a faithful presentation of the Iliad.
Ancient Greek civilization flowered around 500 B.C., at which point it became classic. Its eventual decline was the result of ouzo and philosophy, which might have been survived separately, but taken together proved too much.
Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles!
If you don't know it I can hum a few bars.
Murderous, doomed, he cost the Achaeans countless losses
(or the Argives, or the Greeks, same difference),
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls
that they opened an Achilles wing. And gave a discount.
Begin, Muse, when the two got in each other's faces,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Why? Who knows.
The gods have reasons, and see things unseen by us,
their wisdom penetrates all mysteries;
and also, they can be pissy.
And so Apollo, God of the sun,
Golden-faced Apollo, did drive a wedge between them,
Agamemnon and Achilles, general and warrior, friend and friend.
And so the warrior Achilles, great Achilles, was moved to anger
and would not lead his men to fight beside Agamemnon
unless Agamemnon said he was sorry, and begged forgiveness,
and didn't just say it, but really meant it.
But that lord of men, that Agamemnon, was proud,
and would not say he was sorry, because he wasn't,
and why should he apologize anyway? Wasn't he general?
Didn't anyone know how hard it was to be general?
Didn't anyone care about his feelings?
And so while the Greeks, or Achaeans, or Argives,
or some combination thereof, but not necessarily limited thereto,
laid siege to Troy, or Ilium, that impenetrable city,
whose walls rose from the plain like something really tall and flat
rising out of something really broad and flat,
as they laid siege, Achilles and his men hung back,
sat around on their ships, bided their time, got drunk,
and played quarters. And without them
Agamemnon's force was weak, and Troy beheld this,
and Hector, noble Hector, valiant Hector, son of Priam,
saw this too, and thought, "Woo-hoo!"
Out came the Trojans! Led by mighty Hector
out of their walled city, out against Agamemnon,
and they started to kick some fanny.
How many Greeks fell at that time? How many stout heroes
did the valiant Trojan arms dispatch?
For example Gingivitis, son of Halitosis,
Gingivitis the flaxen-haired, the glinty-eyed,
how he howled his song of death
as the Trojan speartip penetrated first the epidermis,
breaking the skin, then pressed on through tissue,
severing sinew and tendon alike, glancing off the sternum,
then into the aorta, puncturing that valve,
glutting up the aortal cavity, resulting in cardiac arrest
and death. And not just that flaxen-haired youth, but many others too,
their flesh was scattered about the field, they died in droves,
it was a really bad scene. Agamemnon ordered the retreat,
and the Trojans took a breather.
So Agamemnon called to him Odysseus, wily Odysseus,
whom you probably know better as Ulysses,
even though they're the same guy. Odysseus was Achilles' friend.
Agamemnon knew this. He told wily Ulysses to get Achilles,
and Odysseus said he would.
And so Odysseus went to Achilles. He met him in his tent.
Ulysses was wily, and full of guile,
and therefore didn't get right to the point
but shot the breeze a little, chewed the fat,
and tried to get Achilles feeling comfortable.
And finally he told him why he'd come,
told him of the Argive losses, and the Greek,
and the Achaean (he was just as confused as anyone else),
and how Agamemnon had sent him,
and how even though he hadn't actually said he was sorry,
Ulysses could swear Agamemnon looked sorry,
and wasn't that enough?
And Achilles said unto him, "What are you, high?"
And so Odysseus went back to Agamemnon,
who bade him tell all Achilles had said.
Agamemnon lord of men heard all, and it hurt his feelings,
and he said Achilles was a heel.
Rosy-fingered Dawn then brought another day: more fighting,
more Trojan victories, more dead Greeks, Achaeans, and Argives.
It was really bad and Agamemnon didn't know what to do.
So he retreated again. And sent another guy to Achilles.
Phoenix, this time. Old Phoenix, wise Phoenix,
Phoenix with arthritis he wouldn't wish on a dog.
Phoenix went to Achilles and talked about the weather,
and his bunions, and his digestion, and how it wasn't the heat,
it was the humidity. And Achilles said,
"Go back to Agamemnon, your general Agamemnon,
and tell him he can blow it out his ass."
And old Phoenix did go back, cursing and muttering, incensed!
To think: that an old soldier should come to this!,
it wasn't how they'd done things in his day!,
and on and on like that, the way an old guy gets
when some young guy pisses him off.
And Agamemnon heard the message,
and now he was really angry. And he could hardly wait
for rosy-fingered Dawn to come along again,
but at last she did, and it was another day, another battle.
The Trojans pressed hard, and more Achaeans died,
and more Argives, and now Hector had led his men down,
down to the Achaean ships,
and had the Greek army pressed against the shore
and was pretty sure it was a done deal
but called it a night anyway
figuring he could mop up the next day.
Now, Achilles had a friend, Patroclus, his best friend:
they'd grown up together, they were homies.
And Patroclus came to Achilles that night,
and told him he was sure they were going to lose,
they were all going to die,
unless Achilles got over himself and brought his men
to join Agamemnon's army and kick some Trojan booty.
Achilles loved Patroclus -- not like that,
but you know, the way guys love each other --
and he didn't want Patroclus to die,
so he told him: "Listen. Take my armor. Take my men.
Fight the Trojans, kick their butts. But I won't fight,
I can't fight, until Agamemnon says he's sorry --
and he can't just say it, he has to really mean it."
And Patroclus was like, "Okay, cool."
And Achilles said, "One more thing:
don't mess with Hector. I mean it."
And Patroclus was all, whatever.
Early the next day, once rosy-fingered Dawn arose,
how it heartened the embattled Argives
to see Achilles' men join them in the fray!
With great gladness now they poured forth,
and beat the Trojans back, and chopped them into little pieces,
little bitty pieces, that made nasty squishy noises when you stepped on them,
so you tried not to step on them, only you couldn't help it,
they were everywhere, little julienned strips of Trojans,
an eyeball here, a kneecap there, clumps of hair and gristle,
floppy flaps of flesh, and splintered bone, and pools of blood.
And at the head of the Argive ranks, brave Patroclus!
Achilles' friend Patroclus! Patroclus whom Achilles loved --
not like that, not really, although, yeah, they'd experimented in puberty,
but neither of them really liked it, and it was just part of growing up,
those feelings were perfectly natural, all part of being human --
Patroclus was killing Trojans left and right, and right and left,
he forged a trail of death through the Trojan ranks,
until he saw Hector, noble Hector, and remembered Achilles' words.
Zeus above, high in the vault of heaven, eyes of Olympus,
your will determines all, even from way the heck up there.
And so you willed it that Patroclus, greathearted Patroclus,
extremely excitable Patroclus, should in his fury forsake
the warning from his special friend.
He threw his spear at Hector:
wide right. Another: wide left. And Hector saw him there,
saw Patroclus standing in Achilles' armor,
and therefore thought he was Achilles,
since he didn't know about the whole armor loan deal,
which could have made for a funny bunch of mix-ups
in another sort of story. But in this one, it was harsh:
Hector killed Patroclus. One spear, one corpse.
And Hector took the armor off Patroclus,
and wore it himself, and danced around the corpse
of the mighty fallen hero. And you can just imagine
the rollicking high jinks that might still have ensued
if this were a play by, oh -- say, Noël Coward.
At the end of the day they gave Achilles the news:
his friend was slain at Hector's hand.
He didn't take it well. He had loved Patroclus --
not like that, but you know -- no! He had loved him like that!
He didn't care who knew! He loved him, and he would avenge him.
Impatient Achilles didn't even wait for Dawn, rosy-fingered bitch,
but he put on his armor, Achilles did --
not his good armor, which he had given to Patroclus,
which had caused the whole misunderstanding in the first place --
but his other armor, the spare set,
that he always brought in case of emergency.
And out he went and threw himself against the Trojan lists.
They hadn't been expecting anyone at that hour,
so he was able to whale on them pretty good for a while.
And even when the element of surprise wore off,
such was the wrath of Achilles, such his rage,
such his general cantankerous furor,
that he sliced through the Trojan ranks
like something hard and sharp through something really soft
until at last he beheld his nemesis, assassin of his friend,
Hector, prince of Troy.
Achilles' eyes flashed with thunder, he roared out lightning rage:
"I swear to Zeus I'll kill you, Hector, to avenge my special friend!"
And Hector, mighty Hector, just smiled and raised his spear.
"You shouldn't swear to Zeus, you fool -- not so near your end!"
Hey, that rhymed.
So valiant Hector loosed his spear, and it whistled o'er the bloody field
(not any particular tune, but a general sort of whistle,
the kind created from a projectile vibrating through the air),
and wide it flew, a mile wide, and Achilles laughed out loud.
"Missed me!" cried the raging hero, "Missed me!
Now ya gotta kiss me!"
Undaunted Hector drew again, aimed a second spear.
Achilles crouched, prepared to dodge -- and here it comes! He leaps!
Wide left! No good! Now Hector stands unspeared!
He draws his sword and rushes forth, prepared to slay Achilles;
that hero holds his spear aloft, eyes afire, taking aim.
But wait! Behold! Isn't that his armor?
When it comes to irony, the gods can sure deliver. Like Domino's.
Achilles knew his armor well, knew its impervious mettle.
He knew he couldn't pierce its hardness.
So as Hector came toward him, his terrible sword raised high,
Achilles aimed for the neck and threw -- and hit!
And the spear plunged through the skin,
and punctured the larynx, and shattered the vertebrae,
and severed the spinal cord. So much for Hector.
And Achilles took his corpse and tied it to his chariot,
then rode around the walls of Troy, dragging Hector in the dust,
and did doughnuts.
And that was pretty much that.
And old King Priam, Hector's father,
had to beg Achilles for the body of his noble son
so he could bury it, and honor it, and do whatever it was
that old men did with their dead sons' bodies.
And Hecuba cried, but what is she to you? What are you to her?
Or however that goes.
Anyway, the main thing is: great Hector was dead,
and they buried him. And Achilles was doomed
because of this prophecy that I forgot to mention
from the oracle at Delphi, which had foretold that
not long after Hector's death, Achilles too would perish,
so it's not like he could celebrate.
Also, when Agamemnon finally got home his wife killed him.
Then his son Orestes killed her, his own mother,
and then the Furies hounded him for vengeance.
It was this whole big tragedy.
And most of the Trojan woman had to whore themselves, or worse.
And it took Ulysses twenty years to sail home to Ithaca
because he was a great proud man and would not ask for directions.
And when he finally did get home, his dog died.
So it was pretty much a bummer
all the way around.
-- The End --
Copyright © 2000 by Greg Nagan
Meet the Author
In addition to his work as a writer for Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, Greg Nagan was the cofounder of both the critically acclaimed Chicago theater group igLoo and the award-winning Studio 108. The creator of the popular Web site JustMorons.com, he lives in New York but remains nostalgic for Central Time.
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