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The Iliad–And What It Isn’t

28 May

Achilles Tends PatroclusSometimes there’s a book that you hear about all your life–bits and pieces. You think you know what it’s about. And then you actually read it–and it isn’t. Not quite.

The Iliad is one of those books. We briefly covered it in one of my college history classes, and I was required to read its “sequel,” The Odyssey.

Except that The Odyssey isn’t really a sequel to The Iliad. In fact, the two books are so different that some literary critics have claimed Homer couldn’t have written both. The Odyssey is fantasy to The Iliad‘s war novel. The Odyssey ends happily; The Iliad‘s ending is ambiguous enough that Aristotle pointed to Homer as the first Greek tragedian.

And there is no Trojan horse. (Here I’m hoping to hear gasps of horror from those who haven’t read the book.) Evidently there were so many versions of the Troy epic floating around ancient Greece that nobody really cared about the Trojan horse anymore. Or something like that. At any rate, Homer focuses the story more on Achilles. Achilles is wronged by Agamemnon (the idiot) who takes Achilles’ favorite war captive as his own. So Achilles goes to his mother, a minor goddess, who convinces Zeus to teach the Greeks in general, and Agamemnon in particular, a lesson. Only tragedy convinces Achilles that the needs of his countrymen are more important than his personal grievances.

In all honesty, I got somewhat tired of reading about who-killed-whom by the end of the story. And the Greek system of morality could be…interesting. As much as the ancients worried about their wives and children being taken in battle, apparently declaring non-combatants to be off-limits wasn’t really a consideration. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to survive on their own anyway; I’m not sure. I’ll leave that question to the historians.

I re-read the introduction after finishing The Iliad. Usually I read through books chronologically–if I do anything unusual, it’s only skipping to the end to see how the story turns out. But the introduction helped me put The Iliad into its historical context. Trying to write a unique epic about the Trojan War was, for Homer, equivalent to a modern-day writer trying to create an original dystopian novel, without plagiarizing Brave New World or 1984. There’s this, too–it might be difficult to create a single narrative of the Trojan War. It was, after all, extremely long. When C.S. Lewis began a [never finished] novel about Menelaus and Helen, he started it with Menelaus already inside the horse.

I’m getting pictures in my head of a particularly awkward Greek council of war. “So,” says Nestor. “Everything else has failed. Why don’t we pretend to go home, but actually stuff ourselves into a giant wooden horse instead?”

Come to think of it…I understand why Homer left that part out.

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1 Comment

Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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One response to “The Iliad–And What It Isn’t

  1. bryanajoy

    May 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Very entertaining post.

    I just finished The Iliad a couple of months ago and was also surprised by most of the things you mentioned. There were also some very amusing snatches of dialogue among the many very volatile characters, in addition to pretty much the most epic similes ever. You know, the ones that are half a page long? 🙂

     

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