The subtitle of Caroline Alexander’s book about the Iliad is “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.” A little long-winded that subtitle, but accurate. This is a recounting of the Trojan War as Homer told it and Alexander now interprets it. The key players are the combatants, Achilles and Hector, and their leaders, Agamemnon and Priam.
The Iliad glorifies the heroes, but it does not glorify war. Achilles is not at Troy in fulfillment of a pledge to defend the husband of Helen of Troy (originally of Sparta). He is there for glory, and yet he is reluctant to fight. He quarrels with Agamemnon not just because Agamemnon took the girl Briseis who had been awarded to Achilles, but because in the taking Agamemnon showed himself to be capricious and unjust and out for more than his fair share. The booty awarded to a warrior after a battle or a raid honored the glory he had won, but it was not the glory itself, as Achilles understood. Agamemnon did not understand, and probably did not care to.
The new reader of the Iliad comes to it, expecting the story of the Trojan War. It is not. It is the story of a few days during the tenth year of that war, days during which Achilles withdraws from the battle, Patroclos is killed, and Achilles returns to the fight and slays Hector. We know the rest of the story — the beauty contest of the three goddesses, the abduction of Helen by Paris, the death of Achilles, the Trojan horse, the sacking of Troy — from other sources. Alexander explains,
The complete story of the war was once told by a series of six other epics, known collectively as the Trojan War poems of the Epic Cycle. Composed at various dates, all considerably later than the Iliad, they also, like the Iliad, drew on much older common traditions.
In Alexander’s analysis of the Iliad she points out many places where Homer’s poem is at variance from that older tradition. Homer skillfully chose his incidents and characters to make real the meaning of leadership, friendship and death in the lives of the Greek and Trojan warriors. He also shows us the grief of mothers and of aged fathers, as parallels are developed between the suffering of Priam and the sorrows of Achilles’ mother, Thetis.
Thetis is a sea nymph, one of the immortals. Married to a mortal man, she gave birth to the mortal Achilles. She is destined to see him die while she lives on. (This is a disadvantage to immortality I had not considered before.) Alexander develops the idea of the inequality of the relationship between the gods who will live forever and the men who will not.
Of greater interest than the nature of the gods per se is the nature of their relationship with mortal men. The Olympians of the Iliad know everything about the mortals they look down upon…. Rarely indolent, usually zestful and opinionated, the extended family of Zeus aggressively engages with the mortal world. In disguise, the Olympians move, speak, and act freely among men, partaking of the human experience….
By contrast, despite the busy flow of divine activity that drums through their lives, the Homeric heroes and heroines know very little about their gods.
Because they know so little, men must propitiate the gods out of a proper caution for the future. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. One has a sense here of why Homer still speaks and we still listen: the gods know all including the future toward which men must grope blindly.
There is so much in this book that my comments here are just picking threads off the surface. I enjoyed the comparisons with other myths and folktales, the analysis of names and language, the evidence from archaeology. Best of all was the differentiation of character that Alexander perceives in the Iliad and the way Homer’s construction of the story conveys his views of gods and war and men and, especially, Achilles.
Here was a hero with both the nature and the stature to think and speak as an individual, to stand apart and challenge heroic convention. In the hyperstated mortality of Achilles lay the origins of something potentially greater even than epic — and that was tragedy.