The Iliad - Homer, Bernard Knox, Robert Fagles Am I really going to bother reviewing Homer’s _Iliad_? I mean, what am I going to say that hasn’t been said by generations of scholars, reviewers or readers? Does another drop in the ocean matter? Well, even if it doesn’t I’ll give it a go I guess. Reading the _Iliad_ was mostly done by me as a correction to a perceived gap in my education. I had always known bits and pieces about the poem and its heroes from various sources and the culture in general, but I had never read the poem itself. Given that it is a foundational text (perhaps *the* foundational text along with its sister epic [b:The Odyssey|333706|The Odyssey|Homer||3356006]) of the western canon it’s a pretty big gap. Well, I did it! I found myself both compelled and, I will admit it, sometimes bored by the text (though mostly only when we came upon the epic tradition of having the lineage of each character spelled out in gruesome detail before said hero was gruesomely despatched by an enemy’s spear thrust). Still, once I made it through Book II’s interminable catalogue of the Achaean heroes who came to Troy along with the number of ships and men they brought with them I knew that nothing could stop me.

My biggest surprise was probably the way in which the heroes, all seemingly spawned by gods, are not all that unlike superheroes in a comic book: forces of raw destruction whose primary wish is for glory and the mad rush of violence and battle. And yet even these great figures pale next to the gods who play them like puppets on a string watching events unfold before them and giving a nudge here and there when the outcome for their favored side is in doubt (indeed, for me some of the most humourous moments came about when a god would unceremoniously pluck a warrior from the ground and punt him into the distance in order to keep him safe like some giant hand in a gamer’s favourite RTS strategy game). It was these images and analogies, inadequate as they may seem, that kept springing to mind for me as I read of the epic battle between the Achaeans and the Trojans. It was, in that sense at least, a surprisingly modern text for me.

The poem is chock-full, on both sides of the conflict, of men who are larger than life. Of course the great exemplars of each side, Achilles and Hector, stand heads and shoulders above the rest, but both armies are lousy with seeming giants whose every action in battle is a superhuman carnage fest; the roll call of the Achaeans alone is impressive: wily Odysseus, prideful Agamemnon, wise Nestor, courageous Diomedes, and both the Greater and the Lesser Ajax. Of course, if you’re not a hero and don’t boast either a god or at least a royal personage in your near lineage, then you’re really just spear fodder whose primary purpose is to allow the real fighters to show off their skill in the art of death-dealing. Indeed fighting is all about the individual fighter's glory and his desire for booty...stripping the corpses is more important than pursuing a tactical advantage. Ego is all. This is a frightening vision of what a world of superheroes might look like with the lowly peons at the whim of their violence and glory-seeking. The boast and the taunt are also on full display. Each hero seeks to undermine his opponent with a war of words before the spear has even left his hand. Lineages are vaunted, or disparaged; deeds are proclaimed, or ridiculed; most of all threats are made and reciprocated. Old Spidey of the glib tongue has nothing on these guys. (“I too could battle the deathless gods with words — it's hard with a spear, the gods are so much stronger. Not even Achilles can bring off all his boasts…” – Hector)

The violence in the poem is explicit and all-pervasive, a veritable orgy of death and dismemberment. From the brains splattered inside helmets by a spear’s intrusion, to the “lethal hit that’s loosed [a body’s] springy limbs”, we are constantly presented with a panoply of violence that brings down the mists of death, a “dark [that] came whirling down across [their] eyes”, upon the stricken warriors. Homer was apparently no prude and was happy to indulge his audience’s apparent appetite for such scenes. The battle scenes are also truly cinematic, both in their colourful gore and in the superhuman skill displayed by the combatants, as foe after foe is handily dispatched in an almost balletic whirl of pure violence. Achilles is perhaps the most conspicuous in this, no more so than when he at last enters the fray near the end of the poem, maddened at the death of his friend Patroclus, and fells Trojans left and right:
Achilles now like inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges splinter-dry, setting ablaze big stands of timber, the wind swirling the huge fireball left and right — chaos of fire — Achilles storming on with brandished spear like a frenzied god of battle trampling all he killed and the earth ran black with blood.…so as the great Achilles rampaged on, his sharp-hoofed stallions trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car, sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs and churning, whirling rims — and the son of Peleus charioteering on to seize his glory, bloody filth splattering both strong arms, Achilles' invincible arms

Indeed the rage of Achilles is a primal thing. The seemingly excessive violence of his comrades and their enemies prior to his entering the fray is made to seem a pale, simpering thing in comparison. Achilles is a whirl of bloodlust, hatred and retribution whose only aim is the eradication of the Trojans and their great prince Hector as payment for the death of his old friend.

Despite the great power that each of these heroes displays, it is not necessarily an altogether innate function of the hero’s mighty thews and prowess alone, for it is made evident throughout the text that the real perquisite for success is the blessing of a god, regardless of the native power and skill of the individual fighter. The gods seem at first content to mostly sit on the sidelines, restricting themselves to aiding and abetting their favourite hero with a nudge here and a push there until, with the advent of Achilles and his killing rage, even Zeus fears that the outcome of the battle may change and the decrees of fate may be unbalanced by a mere mortal. He then lets the gods loose and they fight for their chosen sides in a free-for-all that is impressive in its violence and imagery where one telling things comes immediately to the fore: the gods are much less interested in maintaining the balance of fate for the betterment of the cosmos than they are at using this excuse to fight their own grudge matches against perceived and real slights from their divine rivals.

In many ways the gods are perhaps even more prevalent in the battle for Troy than are the human participants. This is fitting given the fact that a contest amongst the major goddesses, and the perceived slight of its result by the losers, were the direct antecedents to the war that would destroy a civilization. I’m not sure how Paris could have judged the beauty contest between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera in a way that wouldn’t have ended in bloodshed and mass genocide, but he certainly didn’t try very hard once the goddess of love dangled the prospect of Menelaus’ beauteous wife before him. This picking of love above worldly authority or wisdom and supremacy in war may seem like a purely pacific and even noble choice, but it often seems that even love as expressed in _The Iliad_ appears to be a fundamentally selfish thing. Helen, the human paradigm of beauty, and her divine patron Aphrodite, are both interested in ‘love’ not as something that expresses affection or devotion to another, but rather something that glorifies the self. Helen’s beauty is a great power and she uses it to glorify her own position. She deserts her husband and child for Paris and even this ‘love’ seems to be more a reflection of her own egoism and an expression of her power over him than any sort of true affection for the son of Priam. That being said there is one set of relationships that seem to look beyond the demands of heroic culture and the vanity of the self: these are primarily seen in the quiet moments of humanity in Hector’s love for his wife and child (and really for all of his family, even spoiled bratty Paris, and for Troy itself). One could also point to the love of Priam for his dead son, and the need to redeem his mutilated corpse at any cost (even unto walking into the enemy camp with only a servant and a cart full of booty), as another example of the love of others overcoming the love of self.

There were a plethora of great moments in the poem, but this review is already getting overlong, so allow me to simply name the ones that immediately spring to mind: the night raid of Diomedes and Odysseus into the Trojan lines, the lone stand and battle cry of Odysseus after the Achaeans run in terror from pursuing Trojan warriors, the coming ashore of the Nereids at the bidding of Thetis to comfort Achilles, Athena’s arming with the storm-shield of Zeus, the gathering of the Rivers in Olympus, Hephaestus boiling a river god in his own bed in defence of Achilles, and the empowerment of Achilles before his death-dealing drive amongst the Trojans to name but a few. In the end this was a greatly entertaining read that surprised me in many ways. Of course, it wasn’t all dismemberment and bloody glory, there was human suffering and despair (both at the hands of the ‘heroes’ and of the gods) and many questions raised about freewill versus one’s fate (Fate seems to have the deck stacked in his favour). I was constantly surprised at little touches made by Homer: Zeus being wooed by Hera so she could distract him from aiding the Trojans (in the course of which he enumerates the allures of his former lovers as part of his seduction strategy…what a charmer!); Hector deciding to leave his men to face death alone in a tight moment and the twin episode of Hector’s very real fear of death, such a great fear that he actually runs away from Achilles in panic before deciding to face his fate (not exactly the inhuman hero I was expecting to see); Agamemnon showing himself to be a blustering politician, attempting to save face and excuse himself at the same time as he tries to apologize to Achilles. The fact that the poem both begins and ends in medias res may leave some modern readers a bit baffled (we enter the fray ten years after the war’s inception and leave with the city of Troy still standing), but it truly is a tour de force of the poet’s art. Whether Homer was one man or many, whether he composed it primarily from an amalgam of the existing tradition of epic poetic devices or it came primarily from the mind of a genius it is a work that does stand the test of time and is well worth the time of any reader (or listener) ancient or modern.