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The Iliad takes place toward the end of the Trojan War, which, according to legend, began when Paris, a son of the king of Troy, abducted Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. At the point Homer begins, Achilles, a Greek warrior, and Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army besieging Troy, quarrel over a captive woman, Briseis. Achilles withdraws in anger to his tent, while his mother, Thetis, a sea goddess, persuades Zeus to inflict losses on the Greeks and thus prove the value of Achilles to the Greek forces. After a long day of battle, the Greeks are reduced finally to approaching Achilles in an embassy. Though moved, Achilles holds firm.
The fighting continues until Achilles allows his beloved companion Patroclus to enter the war wearing Achilles' own armor. Hector, the chief Trojan warrior, kills Patroclus and takes the armor, though the Greeks after an intense struggle win back the body. Thetis brings Achilles new armor, including a great, elaborately embossed shield. Achilles reenters the battle, slaughters Trojans relentlessly, kills Hector, and maltreats Hector's corpse. Achilles then holds funeral games in Patroclus' honor. The games, at which Achilles commands and Agamemnon remains in the background, also serve to restore him to his honored position in the warrior society. There is a profounder restoration of Achilles to his humanity when he gives back Hector's body to Hector's father, the aged king of Troy. The Trojans lament and bury Hector.
Though Homer knew the entire legend of the 10-year siege and refers both to early events and to Troy's fall, he limits his material to a brief period of 50 days and creates a tightly unified structure; this is one of the chief reasons for the belief that the epic is the work of one man and not a compilation to which each generation added new modifications. The division of the material into 24 books, however, .is probably later. Though Homer is careful about the time scheme, the action follows its own inner time and its own carefully planned rhythms. Periods of 9 days are often covered in 30 lines, whereas long sections of many books deal with one day.
The action centers about Achilles. He is harsh, proud, violent in his hates and loves, yet possessed of a larger vision than any of the other characters. Scornful of compromise, seeking "honor from Zeus", he is yet pulled back into the tragic realities of human ties and affections through his love for Patroclus. Homer has transformed a tale about martial honor into a tragic statement of the human condition. Achilles, placed between his goddess mother and mortal father, undergoes the slow, painful process of extricating himself from the conventional rewards of his society for the lonely realization of his individual destiny and the encounter with his own death.
Over against Achilles' isolation stand the two societies, Troy and the Greek army, and the complex personal relations they contain. Much of the greatness of the Iliad lies in its subtle parallels and contrasts between characters and situations. Hector is the exact opposite of Achilles. He is a man surrounded by wife parents, and children, and devoted to a foredoomed cause. Yet, lacking Achilles' clarity of vision, he jeopardizes the city of which he is the strongest defender.
Though both men are tragic, Achilles' tragedy is the more profound. He is capable of love, pity, and generosity, but his violent passions, cruelty, and ruthless commitment to his vision of heroic honor give him that fundamental ambiguity that belongs to the tragic personality as it is to recur in Greek and later literature.
The two personal tragedies are framed and universalized by the large background Homer has created. Hector belongs to Troy, seat of an old, highly wrought culture, full of "long-robed women," elaborate palaces, and the good things of a settled, stable life. Outside the walls of Troy, the attackers live in their tents, without their wives and children, close to their ships.
Among the Greeks are the proud, cruel Agamemnon; sage old Nestor, valiant despite his years; blunt, sturdy Ajax; skillful and politic Odysseus; rash and eager Diomedes; gentle Patroclus; old Phoenix, full of love for Achilles, yet steeped in a past of bitter hatreds and guilty passions. Among the Trojans are the beautiful but guilty and strangely reflective Helen; the faithful Andromache, half aware of her doom; Hecuba, the archetypal mater dolorosa; and old Priam, feeble but still capable of bitter anger and courage.
Outlook and Style
Though Homer has no general idea of fate ("fate", or moira, in the epic is merely a man's personal lot or portion in life), the sense of the inevitability of death haunts both Troy and Achilles. In a famous passage (Book 6) Homer has a minor character compare men to the generation of leaves, scattered by the wind and passing away with the seasons. Zeus himself says, "There is nothing more pitiable than a man of all the things that breathe and creep upon the earth" (Book 17).
This tragic sense is strengthened by the simplicity of the narrative and the recurrent formulas, which combine to present the most charged situations with a bareness of statement that requires and allows no further elaboration. The last line of the poem rings with the accumulated, restrained power of past formulaic descriptions: "And so they buried Hector, tamer of horses."
Yet the suffering is balanced by a joy in the vital energies of the heroes and by glimpses of a happier, simpler world afforded in the numerous similes (well over 200). These similes do not merely provide relief and variety but intensify the tragic concentration of the action by reminding us of the continuities of daily life and of nature. Many of them contain striking observations or surprisingly apt comparisons.
Like the similes, the many battle scenes often juxtapose the hellish world of Troy with life's sweetness and goodness: a doomed warrior, mentioned perhaps only once, is introduced by recollections of his childhood home on mountain or pasture, the beauty of his mother, the kindness or munificence of his father. Achilles' shield (Book 18), though a weapon of war, is a microcosm of human life, a panoramic view of war, peace, nature, youth, age, work, festivity.
Homer's action extends upward to include the gods. Like the similes, they provide relief and variety, though the "will of Zeus" is a reminder that this tale has some larger meaning in the final order of things. The levity of the gods also serves as a foil to the depth of the human tragedy. The mortals, because they are doomed, have a gravity and dignity that the deathless gods often lack. The intervention of the gods, though frequent, clarifies but does not replace the human motivation. Through the gods Homer can present the same action in two different perspectives. His humanization of the gods and his deemphasizing of the more primitive demonic and ecstatic elements in early Greek religion had a decisive influence on the development of Greek rationalism and humanism.
For Homer war is both an intense, grim reality and a huge metaphor for human life, an image of the necessity and the limitations with which man must live. War may evoke cruelty and selfishness; but in Homer's heroic vision, it may also purify and ennoble. At the end, Priam and Achilles rise above the division between the camps to a broad view, finding its utterance in universal myth (Achilles' account of Niobe and his parable of Zeus' jars of good and evil), where conqueror and victim meet as fellow mortals and sufferers.