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The Iliad–And What It Isn’t

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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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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A Summer of Books

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I would be reading much this summer. I was stunned at first. Finally I managed, “That’s like asking me if I am going to breathe much this summer.” I think my initial shock is probably the sign of a severe book addiction. My family would certainly agree.

My room is dominated by bookshelves. Four of them. There’s the little one that I’ve had since I was in "Bookshelf," Tom Rustebergelementary school, the heavy one with glass doors, and the two matching shelves that are six or seven feet high. There are also books on my chair, books on the floor, and books on the night table.

As of right now, I’m in the middle of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. It’s a fabulous book if you’re a Christian who is at all interested in the arts. It covers the biblical philosophy behind art, as well as an interview and chapters written by Christian artists. Also, it has pictures. (That is, color photographs, of artwork, in this case—unusual to find in a paperback book, especially one meant for adults.)

The book includes chapters that deal with theatre, music, and writing, but its focus is largely on the visual arts. I’m no artist, of course. Thankfully the book uses very little technical jargon. The book builds on some of the concepts outlined by Gene Edward Veith in his book State of the Arts.

As for the rest of the summer? A friend took it upon herself to get me addicted to the Les Misérables musical, so I’m hoping to read the book this summer. I need to finish The Iliad, which classes forced me to abandon. And I want to get into Dostoevsky.

Most likely, however, those books will get read very slowly. Having four bookshelves in your bedroom is wonderful. And their contents are a horrible distraction.

 
 

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Off to Find Ourselves

Reading The Goose Girl was satisfying in any number of ways, but one of the more unusual was that its heroine, Isi, is the oldest child in her family.

Perhaps “satisfying” isn’t the right word. “Smirk-worthy” will do. It’s difficult being an older sibling whose younger siblings enjoy pointing out that they are the ones all the fairy tales justify. Cinderella, they insist, was a younger sister abused by her older sisters. Personally, I think it’s at least arguable that Cinderella may have been near the ages of her step-sisters. But most fairy tales that I have read do seem to either use a younger sibling or an only child as the hero. My real problem may be that I haven’t read enough fairy tales. But there is still a real pleasure to see an older sister come into her own. Especially since she was mistreated largely because of her quiet personality.

There is something intrinsically satisfying about that, at least–watching someone who never fit in, who was never allowed to be her true self, find her place. But a conversation the other day made me think a little more about why that is so satisfying.

I forget the exact words–something to the extent that people up through the Middle Ages wrote literature focused on life-and-death struggles, and that the people after the 20th century wrote literature that was about finding meaning in life. It’s an interesting categorization. I’m not a literary critic, of course, and can’t make those sorts of blanket statements. But–thinking back to what pre-modern literature I’ve read–I don’t recall any pre-modern hero going on a quest to find himself. Odysseus’s journey was mainly about survival. The heroes in The Iliad are generally trying to kill one another. And, while the quests of Arthur’s knights are not always done out of physical necessity, they are generally focused on saving someone or undoing some evil. If they are related to the knights at all, the knights are usually trying to prove or disprove some aspect of their character–and character, after all, has eternal repercussions. What you don’t find in the pre-modern era are stories about conflicted heroes trying to figure out who they really are. They already know. They were born knowing.

We, on the other hand, have choices that, if not unlimited, are certainly greater than those most pre-modern people had. Peasants almost never became knights. And knights almost never became peasants, green thumb or no. Choices are nice. But having a great number of them leaves a person in the middle of another dilemma. If a choice has to be made, which choice is the right one? And how can we decide? Should we ask our parents? Take a personality test? Get a bunch of old ladies to pray about it? Get an opinion from a guidance counselor? Write an advice columnist? Look deep into our hearts? How about a combination of them all?

Choices aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. Isi gets offered very few free choices in The Goose Girl; much of her growth is a matter of necessity. I don’t envy her. But choices, though not a bad thing, aren’t themselves very satisfying. The many choices we are offered have left our society feeling hollow. And so we go on a search for meaning–for the place where necessity and choice collide. Are we primarily trying to find ourselves? Maybe–in one sense. We lost ourselves in the Fall, after all. We had a choice. We made the wrong one.

John called Jesus “the Word”–our ultimate communication from God. Communication implies meaning. There is only one real place to find ourselves. Unlike Isi, we can’t understand the wind or speak our thoughts to a horse. We aren’t in a book. But we do have a Book. And it’s only in that Book, and through the Word it talks about, that we can reach the meaning that mankind has been looking for.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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