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Literature Review: The Iliad

Updated on January 12, 2016

Background

Sometime between 760 and 710 BC, Homer wrote The Iliad, one of the oldest extant works of Western literature. An ancient Greek epic poem in Dactylic hexameter found in more than 2,000 manuscripts,, the story is set during the Trojan War and major characters include Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax the Greater, Menelaus, Diomedes, Ajax the Lesser, Patroclus, Nestor, Hector, Aeneas, Deiphobus, Paris, Priam, Helen and the Greek pantheon. It’s legacy has led to such works as Troy, a film starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, and a comic series known as Age of Bronze.

Synopsis

During the final year of the Trojan War, the invaders’ strongest soldier, Achilles has to make the choice of either dying in battle, which will ensure that he lives forever in legend, or retire to a normal life which will mean he dies in obscurity. He withdraws from the war, leading the Trojans to gain the upper hand but Achilles eventually returns after the death of his friend.

Review

Though The Iliad is a decent tale, it is quite a difficult trudge to get through at many points, especially in its large cast of characters, both gods and men.There are hundreds of people that are given names in this book and the reader will usually hear about the names of their fathers as well. However, it seems that they’re only purpose is to be slaughtered and nothing else. However, this makes sense within the context of the poem’s writing and Homer’s audience, who were men who claimed to be descended from at least one of the men who fought and died in the Trojan War. Therefore, their deaths were significant to someone listening to or reading the story and if Homer didn’t mention one, it would have been disrespectful. So while it makes sense, going through all those names can be fairly challenging. But it also does something else: it gives the story some realism as in real wars, many die and they all have their own stories and histories that are significant to someone.

However, there are characters that are fleshed out quite a bit more, such as the biggest moron of the story: Paris, who’s also a coward and the whole reason why the war started (because violating sacred hospitality and kidnapping the wife of a Spartan king is a great idea). And in the era of the Greeks, where a man who would rather love than fight is considered unmanly, he seems to do everything he can to make himself worthy of contempt, like being an archer and relying on Aphrodite to save him from trouble. Even his own family believes him to be a useless wimp.

But on the other end, there’s Achilles who has to make a hard choice of dying in battle or going home and living a quiet life. And while he’s a great warrior, it’s apparent that what his biggest problem happens to be is his anger and pettiness. Really, the reason he leaves the invading army is because he’s angry with Agamemnon and the reason he comes back is because he’s angry with Hector and the death of Patroclus, not realizing that the man died because of his inaction.

Actually, it can be said that there’s not one character in this story that is wholly sympathetic. Agamemnon is so proud that it drives Achilles away and while he does realize that he was foolish, he doesn’t admit blame. Hector, even though he’s more sympathetic than Achilles or Agamemnon, is overconfident and won’t listen to any advice, which leads to his death at the hands of the former. At least Achilles realizes what an irrational idiot he’s being when Priam helps him realize that the way his father feels about him is how Priam feels about Hector, leading him to be able to empathize with his enemy.

And that works because due to Achilles staying in the war, he knows he’s going to die and how his father is going to react. A big theme of The Iliad is fate and the inability to subvert it on the part of both god and man. The entire story revolves around, among other things, acceptance of fate or avoiding it like a coward. And though Zeus might be capable of altering fate, he doesn’t because he’d rather abide by what the Fates have chosen rather than go against them. Apart from Achilles’ destiny to die in the war or live a long life at home, there was also Hector’s destiny to die in combat and Paris’ to have originally start the war, no matter what he did. It’s very well known that Troy is destined to fall as well. The story is just dripping with fate and destiny.

3 stars for The Iliad

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

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