Friday, June 29, 2012


I've just finished reading the Iliad, in Richmond Lattimore's sinewy and sparse verse. It's a surprising read, as I've been telling some people. When one finally approaches a cultural artefact that's been so widely and pervasively disseminated in numerous forms -- the 2004 film Troy comes to mind -- I suspect there are always bound to be surprises. But even compared to the Odyssey, which is a much more straightforward narrative, the Iliad does come across as difficult, even mysterious. The name is the easiest of the mysteries: Ilion is another name for Troy, and so the Iliad is a song about Troy. There is no Trojan horse (and hence the city of Troy does not fall in the actual text, though its impending fall is always referred to) and Achilles is not shot in the heel (he does not die in the Iliad, though his impending death is constantly referenced -- like the fall of Troy). The story of Paris and Helen is referred to, and is the very cause of the Trojan war, but is never set out in detail. The tale begins in media res,  after nine years of failed fighting by the Greeks against the Trojans. Nearly all of the twenty-four books of the Iliad take place in the battlefield between the Greek ships and Troy itself.  It's claustrophobic: we're all hemmed in, along with the Greeks and Trojans. The action itself has none of the grand scope and vision that we've come to expect from epics, though references to a much larger story are made throughout.

The characters too are unexpected -- take the example of Achilles. His character gives shape to the story. He is the supreme hero of the Greeks. Yet weighed down by his inevitable doom and his own irrational resentment against his king, Agamemmnon, he is unable to control his own spiralling, almost demonic, fury. Anachronistically, we can even view Achilles as an anti-hero, because he is, by the end of the Iliad, an incomprehensible, menacing and inhumane force. His withdrawal from battle is matched by an outburst of scepticism, pointedly directed towards the very foundations of the Iliad itself:
 'Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.
We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.' (9.318-322, Lattimore translation) 
When he later does return to battle, he does so in a manner unforgiving and hateful, defiling bodies, sacrificing men ritually and in a manner that one can, anachronistically again, call fey.

That's probably enough from me. I don't want to give away too much, but I wish to encourage all my readers to tackle the Iliad. But a final thought. Like that other masterpiece seen as the beginning of an entire tradition -- Cervantes' Don Quixote -- the Iliad is, in fact, the end of a tradition, radically questioning, and even satirising, the values of a society.*

*I am obviously not a scholar of the classics, so don't take my word for anything at all. Entirely a personal reflection which is, as I've already noted, littered with anachronisms. But perhaps that is the only way when we engage with a work so far removed from our own time and culture. 

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