The Illiad

I’m not sure that given all of the attention and scholarly works about the Iliad, what I can really add, but it has made me think and I’ve really enjoyed it. The below does contain “spoilers” (the story is nearly 3000 years old!). I assume not much of an introduction is needed, it’s a testament to the story that nearly everyone knows roughly what happens. The Illiad is an epic poem first written down by Homer in the 7th century BC. It is set towards the end of the Trojan war, which has been raging for nine years prior, the Greeks are laying siege to Troy and the Trojans and their allies are obviously in opposition.

There’s a lot of characters, many of whom are introduced in the midst of battle, with a brief mention of their worth and lineage, followed by them promptly being speared through the chest. The main characters are Achilles - the Greek hero, King Agamemnon, the proud leader of the Greeks, the Ajaxes - a pair of Greek warriors and Hector, the leader of the Trojan forces. These humans are backed up by a cast of gods, besides Zeus there’s Athena, Hera, Poseidon and Hermes on the side of the Greeks and Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis and Leto on the side of the Trojans, to name but a few.

Achilles is strong and powerful, he inspires his comrades and instils fear into his enemies. He also has an appalling temper and sulks like a child - he asked the gods to aid the Trojans in killing his own allies because of his quarrel with Agamemnon. Once the death of Patroclus focuses his anger to the Trojans he’s very bloodthirsty in dispatching them, the way he treats Hectors body, even after it’s been 12 days dead is inhuman. He’s more of an anti-hero than hero. In the end he is redeemed when he treats Priam (Hectors father) with understanding and thinks of his own father. Achilles sets himself on the path of war and anger but without the intervention of Zeus, I’m not sure that he would have started down that path of redemption.

Hector is altogether more sympathetic, in many ways he is the opposite of Achilles. Achilles has spurned a chance for a peaceful life to go and win glory in the war he knows will be his death, Hector is at war to defend his home and family. Hector is not without his flaws at times he’s too much confidence and at times too little. His flaws only seem to humanise him in my eyes, though it may just be my love of the underdog.

The gods had their own drama and rivalries and worked these out by manipulating the humans, sometimes ridiculously so, for example picking up their favoured human and dropping him out of the battle, out of harms way. The machinations of the gods prolonged the war and probably caused much more deaths, I felt quite sorry for Zeus trying to keep both factions happy. These aren’t benevolent gods, and in that displayed a more human nature. The sections about the gods were often some of the most interesting parts, but at times they made me cry out to them to butt out and let the mortals get on with it.

Descriptions of battles make up a large part of the tale. Battles are expected to be violent but some of these deaths are quite gory, I was actually reminded of the movie 300. > The stone hit him on the forehead and drove his brows into his head for the bone was smashed, and his eyes fell to the ground at his feet. He dropped dead from his chariot as though he were diving, and there was no more life left in him.

I found it hard to imagine the overall shape of the battles, there wasn’t much discussion over tactics but rather there was a focus on personal battles, which are quite odd. It seems that two characters meet, wind each other up, throw spears at each other, someone dies in a very vividly described violent manner and then the victor strips the dead of their armour to dishonour the fallen, all while the battle rages on around them.

I did notice that there weren’t any metaphors (maybe I just missed them?) at all. Homer does make use of similies a lot though, and these are fantastic, producing powerful imagery. They aren’t just a few words like “Menalaus was like a lion” but rather more like this from Book XVII paragraph 4: > Or as some fierce lion upon the mountains in the pride of his strength fastens on the finest heifer in a herd as it is feeding—first he breaks her neck with his strong jaws, and then gorges on her blood and entrails; dogs and shepherds raise a hue and cry against him, but they stand aloof and will not come close to him, for they are pale with fear—even so no one had the courage to face valiant Menelaus.

I was surprised at the end of the book - I had expected it to end with the Trojan horse and sack of Troy, but the redemption of Achilles, the grief of Priam and the funeral of Hector was a lovely, sad ending.

I am tempted to re-read and will undoubtedly do so in the future, this time I read the Butler translation which is in prose, so perhaps with a different, poetical translation just for the variance.