Posted by: Nathan | April 22, 2006

The Iliad or “What? No Trojan Horse?!!?”

–I read The Iliad for two reasons: 1. It’s a classic, and I’m going to grad school in literature; 2. I wanted to read about the Trojan horse escapade that’s so famous and widely parodied. Unfortunately, the second reason to read the book turned out to be misinformation; The Iliad contains no account of the famous equestrian chicanery (it’s in The Aeneid apparently), so I when I turned the last page, I exclaimed, “WHAT?!” But I suppose it’s for the best since otherwise, it would’ve been more difficult to get through Homer‘s work.
–Every time one reads famous literature, the primary question needing to be answered is: Is it Literature deservedly or is it overrated? In The Iliad (which is a word that means a poem about Ilium a.ka. Troy), I found some real treasure but also a lot of things I could’ve done without. –As most know, the plot takes place in Asia minor as the Greeks (referred to as Achaeans in the text) duke it out with the Trojans over whether or not Troy gets sacked. The cause for the war is Paris’s kidnapping of the very hot (so the text says) Helen, who was originally married to Menelaus of Greece. The bulk of the tale is eaten up with various fellas getting speared by each other and going down to the dust; it’s a bloody book. Here’s a brief plot summary: The Greeks arrive and kill a bunch of Trojans; the Trojans rally around Hector and kill a bunch of Greeks, injure most of their leaders, and burn one of their ships; Achilles, seeing the burning ship, sends his pal Patroclus out to fight and Greeks kick butt again, driving the Trojans back to their gates; Hector kills Patroclus and Troy rebounds a little; Achilles finally joins the fray and kils a ton of Trojans including Hector; Priam (king of Troy) comes to ransom Hector’s body; finis.
–I wasn’t taken with the plot. I like war books usually, and this one has its moments, but Homer never really captivated me with the war. I always remained frustratingly distant from the thrust of the plot, maybe because I was waiting for the Trojan horse development (brrrmmp). Though the action didn’t hold me spellbound, I found some joy in the characters of the book, both mortal and otherwise, so I’ll focus the remainder of this post on them.
–Let’s start with the Greeks, whom I was rooting for throughout the book (after all, Paris did steal Helen, and that’s pretty unjust). Some major players on the Achaean side include Odysseus, Agamemnon, Patroclus, Menelaus, and Achilles. Odysseus is my boy (his Homeric novel is far cooler), and it was neat to see the “clever tactician” at work scheming and killing. Good guy. Then there’s Agamemnon. He’s arrogant, boastful, but a dang good fighter. I didn’t like him much. His stealing Achilles’ slave girl is the grudge that keeps Achilles from fighting for most of the book. Patroclus is another good guy: ready-to-fight, loyal, but there’s not much depth there. Menelaus did some good fighting and certainly had the best grievance against Troy since Helen is his wife.
–And there’s Achilles. The Iliad is subtitled The Wrath of Achilles, so I must admit I was expecting a lot from the man. It was certainly lame of him to sit out because Agamemnon stole Briseis, his beautiful slavegirl whom he kidnapped from a different battle. It took far too long for “the swift runner” to don his armor and kill some sons of Ilium. Sure, he can heft the biggest spear (one wonders what the feminist critics would say of that…), he’s the son of an immortal, and he’s got that wicked cool shield made by a god, but I need a guy who’s going to go to war for the his people the whole time. Plus, he cries a lot for being such a tough guy, especially after Patroclus dies. He’s a good friend, but c’mon, Achilles, you’ve got Trojans to skewer. I wanted to root for him the whole poem, but in the end, he was just okay.
–There aren’t a lot of heavy-hitting Trojans; Aeneas, Paris, and Hector are the main guys, and Priam is always in the background being too old to fight. Aeneas seems like a cool guy, and the gods dig him. Achilles was going to spear him but Athena whisks him away so Virgil could write an epic too. As The Aeneid is my next challenge, so I’m sure I’ll get to know this guy better. Then there’s Paris, the jerk. He’s the fella who stole Helen away and started the whole war. Troy’s attitude toward him seems to be split; they like him because he’s so dreamy and they all agree that Helen is a hottie, but they also say things like, “You started this whole war,” so there’s tension there. I would’ve liked to see him die, but you can’t have everything.
–I started out hating Hector and his flashing helmet, but in the end I changed my mind. As I mentioned earlier, I was rooting for the Greeks throughout, so Hector was my arch-nemesis since he kills oh-so-many Achaean warriors. He’s proud but truly brave (except when Achilles chases him around Troy three times), and he dies a man’s death. At least he was out there fighting for his city during the entirity of the battle, rather than letting a slight grievance keep him at home.
–The last major group of characters was the gods, and they do plenty in this epic. They’re always interfering with the events surrounding Troy, each god rooting for his favorite mortals or choosing sides in the fight. Overall, they seem really lame. Some like Troy; some, Greece. Some shower Achilles in glory, others kill for Hector’s sake. They’re always in-fighting with each other and getting hurt by mortals in random things. Some of them are cooler than others (I always like Poseidon, and I must admit, it’s pretty funny when Hera seduces Zeus and tricks him into forgetting about the war altogether for a bit), but overall, it’s hard for me to imagine worshipping anything so petty, stupid, and cross.
–So what is there to glean from this classic epic, so full of death and war? What struck me most powerfully was the inevitability of fate for these people. For example, Achilles knows he will die during the siege of Troy, but he doesn’t flee because if he does the gods will still find a way to carry out their will. Zeus’ nod is law in this tale; whatever he gives his assent to will come to pass. One also notices the courage of the citizens of Greece and Troy to fight for their own peoples. Homer is certainly not afraid of showing us the brutal, often horrifying realities of war in this book, which is certainly a stark reminder for us now regardless of political affiliation. It’s a story about people trying to live a better life, fighting against forces both mortal and immortal to achieve what they believe is best. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of human development.
–For all that and the fact that it was put down on paper (papyrus?) six centuries before Christ, The Iliad is clearly a massive achievement that’s affected Western cultures for millenia. However, I found the actual narrative somewhat lacking in captivating force; I just didn’t care as much as I wanted to, so I couldn’t enjoy the poem as much as I would like to. I give it a 7.6/10. Well worth reading, but more useful as a reference while reading other works. I would read it again, however, and probably will eventually.


  1. A monster post on a monster book. I have not read the book, and probably will not for quite some time, but you give a solid review. Also, in the terrible movie ‘Troy,’ Orlando Bloom plays Paris to the hilt. What a weenie!

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