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The Iliad – Homer

26 Mar
Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

“Achilles Slays Hector” by Peter Paul Rubens

How do you review a great classic that’s been around for thousands of years? I am not an expert and all I can say has already been said by scholars. All I really have to offer are my own impression and whether or not I thought it was worth my time reading it.

I’m obviously more of a feminist than I usually consider myself because  all I could think about was how badly women are used and that threatened to overshadow all the heroism and bravery I know I was supposed to be admiring. Achilles takes over a small town, kills all the men and then takes Briseis –  after he’s killed her husband, father, brothers – and makes her his concubine. Great. Fantastic. What a brute! When the river god Scamander becomes offended at Achilles during a battle in front of Troy, he attempts to drown him in his river and I was completely rooting for him to succeed. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Clearly, Homer means the audience to admire the Greeks over the Trojans, who come across as rather inept. They can’t even send a spy out efficiently, whereas the Greeks excel at everything. The Greeks have wise help (Nestor), awesome-in-might help (Achilles, Ajax), and cunning help (Odysseus). I think part of my problem is that I have an underdog mentality. I can’t help rooting for the Trojans, even though I know they will lose. Zeus has declared they will lose from the beginning and so it must be.

The poem represents a very specific slice of the Trojan War, so Troy does not fall during the timespan of the poem. It begins ten years into the war and ends after Achilles kills Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy and brother of Paris, who ran off with Helen and started the war in the first place. So, although we know from other poems and myths that Achilles will be shot in the heel by Paris and die, and that there will be a Trojan horse (why isn’t it called a Greek horse; they built it?), it is not the focus of the poem. The main hero is Achilles and his desire to live on in glory, after he’s dead.

The poem is also interesting because the last half becomes a kind of divine free for all, with the gods and goddesses choosing their sides and pitching in, fighting alongside the humans. It is Athena who helps Achilles kill Hector by bringing him back his spear after an errant throw. It is this constant divine intervention and predetermination that is interesting, because these people know it’s happening but keep stoically fighting for glory and immortality, despite the fact that so much is out of their control…and they know it. It makes for a curious, heroic fatalism.

What is also interesting is how reverent people are towards the gods, though there’s no guarantee that respect will cause the gods to help them, but there is a definite guarantee that they won’t if you ignore them. Reverence and piety are very much valued and it is considered unthinkably arrogant and foolish to ignore them.

Despite my general lack of sympathy for any particular character (except all those nameless women destined to be Greek concubines), Homer is an incredibly evocative story teller and really conveys the energy of the battles (there are a lot of battles, and one-on-one challenges, and skirmishes over fallen heroes and their armor). I could picture those battles well, and I don’t usually picture things vividly.

And it was worthwhile to read, if only to say that I’ve done it. I got the idea after reading another book called The Trojan War: A New History, by Barry Strauss, who analyzes the myth of the Trojan War (from The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and others) as well as what we know from history and archeology and describes how it could very well have occurred, even if the characters are most likely fictional. It also connects how the descriptions in The Iliad – complete with references and praises to gods and exaggerations about victory and army sizes – was part of how ancient records did record real events.

Ultimately, I guess the best praise I can give it was that I was not bored, which, if you think about it, is often the best praise you can give any work of literature.

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7 Comments

Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Books

 

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7 responses to “The Iliad – Homer

  1. carygrantwonteatyou

    May 6, 2014 at 3:23 am

    I think I liked this book better since I read it after The Aeneid. I’d already therefore gotten the Trojans’ side, and was more willing to hear the Greeks.’ It’s hard to find the men admirable in so many ways (don’t get me started on The Odyssey), in spite of their heroism. I think it’s easier to focus on that lovely language. But I still prefer The Aeneid; I remember feeling drowned by the number of The Iliad’s characters, and found Dido & the rhythm of the language in The Aeneid so captivating–then again, I read it in Latin class, so I may be biased:). Leah

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    • christinawehner

      May 6, 2014 at 11:20 am

      That’s a great reason to be biased, though! 🙂 I often feel like I need more background to more fully appreciate and understand these poems. I read the Aeneid after the Iliad, actually, but I found it far more accessible. It had less battles (I can get bogged down with battles) and the characters were more dimensional, I thought. I like your point about it being easier to focus on the language. It seemed like reading the Iliad was more like reading a verbal canvas or painting; the description was that vivid, but without necessarily entering into the emotions of the characters.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with these poems! It sounds like it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on the Odyssey, too. 🙂

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  2. JanuarysDreamer

    June 21, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    For me, Hector is the one figure that rose head and shoulders above the rest. And the way Homer portrays him, especially in the parting scene with his wife and child, made his fate all the more intolerable because he more than any other character in the Iliad was truly noble with all the attendant virtues. The petty cruelty of his death convinced me that life as Homer “saw” it was a gamble, not worth losing and not worth winning.

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    • christinawehner

      June 23, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      That’s a great observation about Hector and Homer. The poem does seem remarkably fatalistic…whatever happens to the characters is what happens. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. The only thing that is in their control seems to be how brave they are when they fight, so that they can live on as men of great deeds and courage.

      I always felt really bad for Hector’s wife. And I definitely found Hector a more rounded character than Achilles. His relationship – like you mentioned – with his wife and child helps a lot.

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  3. thoughtsallsorts

    September 29, 2016 at 10:49 am

    I had to read this for my extra credit towards my music studies (I see you too are an ex music student) and was expecting it to be a long, slow read that I had to force myself through (we didn’t even need to read all of it – just sections). I so enjoyed it that I read the entire wprl. Not sure if I could do it again (as a student it is easier to do these things) or if I would feel the same now as I did 20 years ago.

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    • christinawehner

      September 30, 2016 at 9:40 am

      It is unexpectedly riveting to read, isn’t it. I don’t usually like battles, but those were the best parts…amazing how much energy the poem has.

      Yeah, I don’t know if I would like to read it again, either. It was frustrating in quite a few parts, but it was good to read at least once!

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