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.