Jennifer and I had a couple of friends over for dinner a few weeks ago, both of them well-educated readers of poetry and interested in the arts, one a playwright with an MA in English, the other working on a Masters of Theology with a BFA. When telling them about what I was up to at the moment, I said, “Do you know the basic plot of the Iliad?”
The answer was no.
These friends are not alone, not just in the reading of the Iliad but in the reading of the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Greek tragedies, and all sorts of other really cool poetry. This is a sorry state of affairs that needs to be rectified. But why? Why read the Iliad, you may ask?
Outside of the fact that it is the first piece of literature in the Western world and the foundational text for Greek literature and culture, and then also for the Romans to a degree, and thus for all subsequent literature and, and outside of the fact that not reading the Iliad means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life, the reasons for reading the Iliad are many. I’ll give you twoish.
The Iliad fulfils my first requirement of any narrative, be it epic poem or modern novel. It has a good story. The story moves along, with clever crafting of the narration, from the rage of Achilles to the battlefield, to the affairs of the gods, to the battlefield, to the rage of Achilles, to the walls of Troy. There is love, battle, hatred, rage, honour, death, life. There are husbands and wives sharing tender moments. There are rapacious warriors snatching, clawing, catching at each other — both physically on the battlefield and metaphorically in the councils of the kings. There are stories within this story, as of Meleager’s tale in Book IX, Western literature’s first mise en abyme.
I could read the Iliad over and over again. In my third year of university, as I read the story of Odysseus’ and Diomedes’ night raid on Rhesus, I was conscious for the first time in my life of a book that I knew I would want to read again and again. The same is true for the Odyssey, which I read first, as with the Aeneid, which I read later, and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. These are my favourite books, full of danger, adventure, and Truth. Stories worth reading.
The Iliad is one of the world’s great war stories; Roy Thomas, in the foreword to his adaptation for Marvel Comics, says it is the greatest war story. In The Hinge Factor, Erik Durschmied writes, “I cannot tell if war is really indispensable to the advance of humanity, I only know it is man’s favourite occupation, and that it has dominated all other human activities.” That is a sadly accurate statement, when we take a look at the centuries of war that stretch out behind us and, inevitably, before us. Although the Iliad is populated by a warrior aristocracy, it does not glorify war. Nor is it anti-war, despite what some read into the Hector-Andromache scene in Book VI. It is simply a poem about war. There is battle, with all its vicissitudes, brutalities, heroics, nobility, destruction, death, force, rage. Ever since Cain killed Abel, humanity has been at war. The Iliad illustrates this reality very well.
The theme of the Iliad is rage. Thus it begins, “Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος,” — “The Rage of Achilles, son of Peleus — sing it, goddess.” This rage propels all of the action of the story, and through its depiction of war and life surrounding war, the Iliad shows us Truth. It shows us Truth about humans, about rage, about the uncertainty of life, about honour, about how to treat a guest-friend, about so much.
So read it, this great story of war that’s worth reading over, that tells us about Truth. Read Fagles’ translation (published by Penguin) or Rieu’s (Penguin Classics). And revel in the glory of Homer’s poetry.