5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

Plot :

For nine years, the massed armies of the Greeks and their allies have laid siege to the walled Trojan city of Ilium, seeking revenge for the abduction of their King’s brother’s wife Helen (she of the Face that launched the thousand ships). The Gods of Olympus are also divided in support of the two warring sides, and goad and support the fighters as the tide of battle ebbs and flows from side to side on the field between the beached Greek ships and the city walls.

Now in the tenth year, the greatest Greek fighter Achilles has withdrawn from the fighting after an insult from his KIng Agamemnon, and it seems as if the Trojans under the leadership of King Priam’s son Hector will succeed in driving the Greeks into the sea. What will it take for Achilles to resume the battle and save his side from defeat?

My thoughts: The first lengthy piece of literature surviving from ancient times, the Iliad starts fairly slowly with hosts of unfamiliar Greeks and Trojans, each briefly outlined with their various histories and successes, usually just before they meet a stronger foe on the battlefield and find themselves killed and on the way down to Hades. As the war turns in the Trojans’ favour and they have pushed the battle to the very brink of the Greek ships, the excitement of the fighting actually starts to impact on the reader, and the violence becomes very graphic.

Who is the hero of the story – Hector or Achilles, or even Patroclus? To Homer’s Greek audience, Achilles might appear the hero –  the doomed man who loses his best friend through his own pride and inaction. Yet he treats Hector’s corpse shamefully, and spends much of the story sulking near his tent. On the other side, Hector is fighting for his town and family, and the scene where he says goodbye to his wife and child are heartfelt, but his cowardice in running from Achilles for three laps around the walled city is not the modern concept of a hero. The truth seems to be that heroes or cowards are judged by their actions, not just in war but also sport and love, which is influenced very strongly by the whims of the Gods. So much of the action in the Iliad is directly or indirectly due to Their intervention – we are all playthings of the Gods indeed! In literature up until now, the Gods were beseeched for help, but did not appear on the stage in the way Homer has included them.

Several of the players are very well drawn in their characteristics. I can easily imagine old Nestor telling his long stories of his glorious youth and boring the grouped soldiers, Achilles nursing his pride and hurt, Paris’ vanity and the criticism from his older brother Hector.

The ultimate sacking of Ilium thanks to the Trojan Horse strategy is not reached by the end of this story, which seems odd. Why did Homer not include such a momentous conclusion? Is that part of the story a fabrication from a later age? Homer settles for the climactic battle between Achilles and Hector, and Achilles’ final softening to release Hector’s body to Priam.

Two of the survivors of the Trojan war will appear in later works : Odysseus’ long delayed voyage home is described in Homer’s other major work, The Odyssey, while Aeneas’s future is featured in Virgil’s Aeneid.

If Homer made his living telling this story in sections after banquets, he must have dined long and well pretty frequently.

Favourite lines/passages : When Hector breaks through the gates of the Greek defence, at the end of Chapter 12, exactly half way through the story:

He lifted up the rock … hit the doors full in the middle, and broke the hinges off on either side… as the panels were smashed to splinters by the impact….. Glorious Hector leapt inside, with a look like nightfall on his face. He held two spears in his hand and the bronze on his body shone with a baleful light. …. With fire flashing from his eyes, he turned and called on the Trojans … some swarmed over the wall, other poured in through the gate itself. The panic-stricken Danaans fled among the hollow ships, and hell was let loose.

Diversions/digressions : The Greek Gods (later adopted and renamed by the Romans) are certainly worth study. Bullfinch’s is a well known reference work, but also Graves’ 2 volume The Greek Myths gives both the myths and plenty of footnotes to explain.

Personal rating : 7/10

Kimmy’s the Lit-terrier rating : Lots of exciting action and roast meat, and camp dogs to play with. The noise and terror of battle costs the story a point : 4/5

Next : Homer’s other surviving work, The Odyssey

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