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Homer’s Iliad – One thing you must read before you die

April 6, 2014

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As well as being interested in their choice of music, I am always intrigued by the reading material which (in addition to the Bible) Desert Island Discs castaways select to take with them. It would be an important decision, needing to be something which you would be happy to read and re-read countless times. Something which, in the isolation of your solitary island, would connect you back with the wider web of humanity.

I would have little difficulty in making that choice myself. Homer’s Iliad is for me not only the earliest but perhaps the greatest works of western literature. Despite being composed over 3,500 years ago it is a timeless tale of the human condition, of our search for recognition, of our petty emotions and of our mortality.

My first introduction to the Iliad was through a radio adaptation of the story which I heard in primary school. Like countless generations before me I was captivated by the tale of a far off age and a far off war, of heroes and of Gods. The Iliad was a major reason why I chose to do Greek and Latin at A Level and at University and gave me the ambition at 17 to visit the places such as Mycenae which feature in the Iliad (it took me 30 years longer to get to Troy).

So what is it about the Iliad which makes it so good?

First it is a very special literary creation, itself wrapped in a level of mystery and mystique just like the world it describes. There has been much debate about whether it is a single literary work and the product of a single author. The consensus is that it is and that Homer, about whom we know virtually nothing for certain, was its creator, probably in the second half of the eighth century. At the same time the poem draws on much older oral poetical traditions which Homer has moulded into a single work of genius. It is intriguing to imagine whether there is a glimpse of self-portrait in the Odyssey when Homer (assuming of course that he is the author of both poems) describes the blind bard who performs in front of Odysseus at the court of King Alcinous in Phaeacia.   This is the point that our earlier traditions of storytelling translate themselves into what we would now call literature and it is staggering that at such an early point a work of such enormous psychological and emotional depth can be produced. It hardly needs to be said, in addition, that its influence on the rest of western literature has been profound.

The second factor is that it’s a cracking good story. It is the tale of the anger of Achilles, the most brilliant of the Greeks, on whose shoulders their chances of taking the city of Troy rests, but who is treated with contempt by Agamemnon, the most powerful of the Greek kings and the leader of its armies. Agamemnon forces Achilles to give up Briseis, a beautiful slave girl whom Achilles has captured and of whom he is fond. Achilles does so but, as a result, decides to retire to his tent and withdraw from the battle. In his absence the fortunes of the Greeks decline and Hector, the leader of the Trojans, is on the verge of storming the Greek ships. At this moment, Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and right hand man, pleads with Achilles to re-join the fighting. He refuses but agrees to lend his armour to Patroclus.   Patroclus rallies the Greeks but himself is killed by Hector who strips the armour. Patroclus’s death sends Achilles into an uncontrollable rage and the day after he revenges himself on Hector whom he chases round the walls of Troy before cutting him down. Priam, the old King of Troy and Hector’s father, is forced to go in disguise to Achilles’ tent and plead with him for the return of his son’s body. Seeing in Priam, a shadow of his own father, Achilles is moved eventually to pity. The Iliad finishes with Hector’s funeral, itself foreshadowing the fall of Troy.

The poem has a dramatic tightness covering a few days in the ten years of the Trojan War but using the audience’s knowledge of the eventual fate of the city to reinforce the tension of the unfolding events. The pace is fast moving, the description of warfare exciting and uncompromising, the main characters larger than life. The Iliad conveys a fearsome sense of the pressure of fate on the main protagonists, Achilles and Hector which they cannot escape. This is a heroic narrative in every sense.

But it is not without its softer moments. My favourite passage of the whole poem is the in the Sixth Book when Hector returns to Troy to upbraid his brother Paris, whose stealing of Helen has brought the Greeks to Troy in the first place, for staying out of the battle. Having done so, he meets his own wife Andromache with their infant son Astyanax. She pleads for him to stay away from the fighting but Hector is too conscious of his honour and duty to do so. Hector stoops to pick up his son who is distressed at the sight of his shiny helmet. The child’s reaction melts Hector’s resolve for a moment but he, and we, know he cannot escape his fate. It is a scene of the most unbelievable pathos.

There is a particular resonance to remembering the Iliad in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War. For the educated classes who took part in greater numbers in this war than any other Homer’s poetry had shaped their world view. For a second time the futility of war was enacted out in the mud of Flanders as it had been on the plains of Troy. In 2011 I fulfilled a long ambition to go to the site of Troy. Later in the year I also visited Ypres and the battlefields of Passchendaele. The resemblance of the two places, both geographically and emotionally, was striking.

Homer may not have the central place in our education which it did a hundred years ago but the Iliad is still something which everyone who is interested in literature and indeed humanity itself should read.

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