Looking Back on the Iliad
I am proud of my companions – tellers of all shapes, sizes, styles and temperaments, who made the effort to become a team and pass the thread of the story unbroken from one to another; who came to grips with this hard, frequently violent text and found currents that ran deeper than battlefield bloodshed. We started out, I think, rather appalled by the Iliad –by what we had signed on for. So much of it is alien and harsh: so many quasi-clinical descriptions of spears piercing various body parts; so much fickleness, deception and unfairness on the part of the “blessed” gods; so much ultimately pointless death. In other words, so much war.
In truth, the Odyssey is easier to like (though its climax is arguably more vindictively gory than anything in the Iliad). The Odyssey is rich in varied and adventurous episodes, fully realized characters, even humour. The goddess Athena shows herself more likeable in her consistent helping of Odysseus. By contrast, with the Iliad we are mostly in the trenches. Character after character is given a personality and a name only as a prelude to sudden death. We hear briefly of his parentage, his beautiful homeland, his lovely armour, perhaps his hopes and fears; then he is falling under the wheels of an enemy’s chariot, struck down by arrow, spear, sword or rock, and darkness engulfs him. The Iliad is harder to learn, harder to tell, harder to listen to. But it has its rewards.
We have argued (not so much amongst ourselves, but with our friends and families) about whether the Iliad glorifies war. It strikes me that, as we tellers became more and more involved with the text over these past months, it was increasingly rare for one of us to express that view. There is room for legitimate disagreement here; but to my mind Homer’s dispassionate, almost surgical descriptions of the intimate violence of man against man is worlds away from the gung-ho fantasies of the more simple-minded patriotic war movies. The Greeks and the Trojans may hate each other, but there is no evidence that Homer hates either, or that he identifies either side as “the good guys.” He is amazingly even-handed and unromantic in describing this war. He does not even pretend that it ultimately has any meaning or value, except perhaps as an opportunity for men to show courage or cowardice, cruelty or mercy. Troy will fall and be pillaged, not because its inhabitants are more sinful than other people, but because Fate has ordained it. There are causes for the disasters (Paris’s favouring of Aphrodite over Hera and Athena; Agamemnon’s arrogance; the pride of Achilles and Hector) but on deeper reflection these “causes” seem to be merely the playing out of forces beyond human understanding.
Yet some things are being glorified here. There is glory in the beauty and strength and speed of the warriors (and of their horses!). When they show courage, or mercy, or sound judgment, or skill with words or weapons, we are surely meant to approve.
Somehow we can’t help liking Hector, though he gives evidence of being as violent as Achilles, as ready to take vengeance on the dead. Perhaps it is because Homer shows him as a father, kissing his wife and young child and heading off to another day of grim battle. We find it hard to like Achilles, but we see him compelled against his will to grow, to experience terrible loss, guilt, responsibility, acceptance and ultimately even a little compassion. Priam is “a violent-tempered old man,” not a kindly grandfather figure. Crushed by sorrow, he shows all the selfish cruelty of sorrow, wishing his lesser sons had died instead of Hector; and yet we cannot help pitying him. Even Zeus, demonstrably short on pity, pities Priam. Mired in loss, all the old king asks is a chance to grieve properly for his son: “Achilles can kill me then and there, once I have taken my son in my arms and wept my fill.”
People have been talking and writing about the Iliad for almost three thousand years. This is all I have time to add for tonight. Thank you, Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cayley, for leading us in this project, this climb. Thanks, Ellis Lynn, for sharing the final chapter with me. Thanks Marie, Jacques, Katherine, Kathryn, Kim, Daniel, Nicole, Anne, Phil, Catherine, Marta, Dean, Mary and Jeff, for digging deep, finding the thread, and letting it shine. And thanks to the listeners, who made it real.