Once I sat in a dentist’s office waiting for my appointment and reading a fascinating critique of the Iliad. When I heard my name called, a young technician came to fetch me, and seeing the book in my hands, gave me a look of profound sympathy. “Oh, dear,” he said, “is that for a class?”
No, it is my passion, I wanted to say, for the Iliad opened the door for me into the ancient world of pre-classical Greece and is the inspiration for my second novel, Warrior’s Prize. I’ve read many scenes from it countless times, for the sheer beauty of its language as well as for its profound truths about life. As much as any masterpiece of any age, it comes alive for me. Here are the thoughts I offer to those who don’t know the Iliad and think that reading it might be some form of torture—as well as those familiar with the text who might enjoy a lighter touch.
A WRITER’S MUSINGS ON THE ILIAD AND ITS DIFFICULT HERO
A long time ago I opened a book about the Trojan War, anticipating a dull tome, given that it was an ancient classic. To my surprise I was immediately swept up into a terrifying conflict between two dangerous men. From that moment I could not stop reading.
I like to imagine that when Homer (even supposing he existed and was only one person) first started writing the Iliad, he began it with dozens of stanzas praising the gods and invoking muses, as poets were wont to do back then. But when he submitted this early draft of his manuscript, his editor (perhaps Zeus) sent it back and said, “Homer, my lad, nobody wants to wade through all this claptrap. Get to the story fast—the conflict. In the first few stanzas. The first lines, even.”
So Homer did. I can think of few works of literature that plunge us into the action and the characters faster than the Iliad. Before you can catch your breath, our hero Achilles and his overlord Agamemnon are engaged in a deadly dispute, hurling insults at each other in the presence of the assembled Greek army. This clash will have dire consequences for the outcome of the Trojan War and everyone involved in it.
You might open the Iliad expecting one-dimensional warrior heroes and thinking to yourself, “Bored already.” Well, prepare to be surprised. The characters are varied and far from flat, and Achilles, most of all, fairly leaps off the page as a fully formed albeit flawed human being. Although he has all the attributes of the conventional hero, he is far deeper and more complex. He has many gifts, but also weaknesses and vulnerability, and a bad side as well as a good side.
Because of his stubborn pride and terrible temper, his bad side is worse than most. In fact you don’t want to get on Achilles’ bad side. You could end up dead. His vulnerability is not, as some might expect, his heel. That is never mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. It was apparently incorporated into the legend several centuries later, perhaps stolen from another myth. Achilles is as vulnerable as the rest of us. But his greatest vulnerability—his true “Achilles’ heel,” which will be his undoing—is his love for his dearest friend Patroklos.
You may have heard that there are very few original plots in the world. One of the most common is: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” (See Pride and Prejudice, among others). The plot of the Iliad has a slightly different twist. It goes something like this: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses boy, boy gets girl.”
Spoiler (but not really—you will learn this in the first two pages): Agamemnon is forced to give up one of his female slaves because her capture has displeased a god. To make up for this, he commandeers Achilles’ favorite slave girl Briseis, awarded to him as a prize for his valor in battle. Robbed of his honor and deeply hurt, Achilles withdraws from the war. In his fury he swears a solemn oath that no matter how dire their need, he will never fight for the Greeks again. He threatens to sail for home.
Agamemnon says, “Pooh on him! We don’t need him.” And the Greeks continue to fight the Trojans without their greatest warrior.
If you love violence, you will love the battle scenes. And you will get lots of them, with great details: men skewered by spears, gashed with swords, spilling their intestines, eyeballs, and other body parts all over the battlefield. Homer describes them very visually, with loads of great similes. If this is not really your thing, you may skim through them, stopping only to pay attention to the single combat scenes, the interesting taunts and insults, and the scene where two opponents stop fighting each other to compare their ancestry DNA, and discover they are related.
THE HERO AT A CROSSROADS
As it turns out, the Greeks do need Achilles. Things go very badly for them without their greatest warrior. So they decide to make reparations and beg him to return to battle. Agamemnon sends a deputation of three men offering many gifts to Achilles (including giving the girl back) but doesn’t deign to go himself.
But Achilles has had a lot of time to ponder the meaning of his existence. He has reconsidered this whole war thing and decided he’d rather return home and have a peaceful, uneventful life. The Fates have given him a choice between long life in obscurity or an early death in battle with everlasting fame. A part of him still yearns for everlasting fame, but due to the loss of his honor and the oath he has bound himself with, he cannot return to the war.
The deputation must go back to Agamemnon empty-handed, but not before Achilles points out the irony that the war is about recovering a stolen woman (Helen) from the Trojans, while Agamemnon steals a woman from one of his own men.
BOY LOSES BOY
Things continue to go very badly for the Greeks. At last his dear friend Patroklos, persuades Achilles to let him go to battle disguised in Achilles’ armor and leading Achilles’ men. Long story short: It doesn’t work. Patroklos is not up to the challenge, ends up facing the Trojan champion Hector, and gets offed in very short order.
Achilles is torn with grief, made worse by the knowledge that this was his fault. He dons new armor and goes out to exact his revenge on the Trojans. There is no stopping his killing spree, until at last he comes face to face with Hector, makes short work of him, and drags the body back to his camp, where for days on end, he continues to wreak his rage upon it. Like I said, you don’t want to be on Achilles’ bad side. Priam, Hector’s father, knows this when he comes to try to ransom back the body of his dead son. He fears things will not go well.
But don’t worry! Didn’t I tell you Achilles has a good side? Atonement and redemption are just around the corner. Achilles’ best self has returned, his fair-minded, warm-hearted, magnanimous best self. When Priam, his enemy, comes as a beggar on his knees, Achilles takes pity on him. He raises him up, comforts his tears, and treats him with great compassion as an honored guest. In one of the most sublime passages in all of literature, he reflects upon the universality of suffering. Centuries before the birth of Christ, he learns that it is in forgiving that we are forgiven.
He does not die in the Iliad—not until later in the war. But for now he is at peace.
End of story? Not quite! In his very last moment on stage before the final curtain, our hero gets his girl, Briseis.
If you haven’t read the Iliad, you don’t know what you’re missing!