I read The Iliad recently, and while I have read three different translations of The Odyssey and taught it several times, I’ve never previously read the former poem. It was one of those major literary works that I always wanted to read but never got to—or, more precisely, there were always other books that I placed in front of it in my never-ending “to-read” stack.
First, in general it was more exciting that I expected it to be. I love The Odyssey, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty slow in parts, and I expected about the same from this earlier work. Here is one moment that stands out as an example. Toward the end of the poem, after Achilles has avenged the death of his close friend Patroclus, the Greeks participate in funeral games to honor Patroclus: boxing, archery, running, and others. The most thrilling to me was the chariot race, the winners receiving a woman “skilled in crafts” and a tripod (1st prize), an “unbroken” pregnant mare (2nd), and a cauldron and gold bars for 3rd and 4th. Homer cuts back and forth between the race itself and its audience who sometimes cheer and sometimes rudely but humorously insult each other. A young up-and-comer named Antilochus, the son of King Nestor of Pylos, approaches fast behind King Menelaus, husband of Helen, whose unfaithfulness causes the war to begin in the first place. Antilochus gains ground on Menelaus as they charge neck and neck. Nearing a section of the course far too narrow for two chariots to ride side by side, Menelaus commands the younger risk-taker to pull back, for they will surely crash. Antilochus refuses, and in what must be the first literary example of a game of chicken, they dangerously careen toward the narrow stretch. At the last moment, Menelaus pulls back, and Antilochus goes on to win second prize and the respect of Achilles and all the Greeks.
Not counting Gilgamesh, The Iliad really must be the first major tragedy. Everyone is doomed by an ineluctable fate, and the poem ends not with the war’s end but with the funeral of the fallen hero Hector, to me the only representative of civility and honor and (national?) pride in the poem (despite Hector’s foolish decision to wear Achilles’ armor after killing Patrolus). A great city has fallen and a noble hero is no more. Hundreds of years before Sophocles’ Oedipus and Aristotle defined tragedy, Homer created the first tragic hero in Achilles (again, with the exception of Gilgamesh). Achilles is larger than life, doomed to fail, and pulled down by his hubris. He experiences peripety (a reversal of fortune) in the death of his closest friend and demonstrates anagnorisis (an awakening or seeing the world in a new way) when King Priam begs him to return his son Hector. Achilles realizes something in this moment about humanity and honor that he couldn’t grasp before.
There is a kind of paradoxical attitude that Homer seems to have about war. While it brings glory and honor to those who fight and win, it also clearly brings out the worst in people. This could just be my biased, modern-pacifist perspective skewing what Homer was trying to say, but my sense is that even Homer had mixed feelings about the brutality and viciousness of war. For instance, he’s constantly using similes to compare fighters to lions and other animals, and this is done not to glorify or venerate the fighter but to show how brutal they are. While Homer admires Achilles’ power and courage and fighting skills, he also clearly thinks Achilles goes too far at times. The tragic and completely disrespectful example of Achilles attaching and dragging Hector’s body around Patroclus’ funeral pyre comes to mind. Homer seems to be asking: Is this really what humans do to each other? Maybe this is a different topic, but there is also the ridiculous image of Achilles, bloodthirsty and single-minded in his quest to seek revenge, fighting a river. A river! How foolish and arrogant humans can be to think they stand a chance against the powers of nature.