Note: One reason I wanted to blog about "the great books of the Western canon" was that I've actually found very little personal writing about them on the net. A number of teachers and professors have posted their lecture notes, which are helpful for getting the academic background about these stories. Otherwise, the pickings are slim, and the notes themselves seem a bit too mannerly. Do academics actually pick up on how freaky and bizarre, violent and perverse most of these stories actually are? Or is that just me? I do worry a bit about lazier and less scrupulous students stealing from these notes. However, there is one thing that I think would make that a really bad idea: I'm a full-blown weirdo.The parts of these stories that interest me are salacious, ultraviolent, perverse, and inappropriate. And I tend to go off on rambling tangents. So, if you want to clip and paste these notes and turn them in to your teacher, you will probably fail.
Okay, so returning to the Iliad, I've laid out the storyline and characters, and I want now to talk about some of my favorite scenes in the text. The Iliad is the sweeping story of a world-changing war; yet, it's anchored by specific human incidents that are psychologically illuminating and fascinating. Here are some of my favorites:
1. The scene in which the old Trojan first witness Helen and say: "No one could blame the Trojans and Greek men-at-arms for suffering so long for a woman's sake. She is fearfully like the immortal goddesses." They do want her out of the city because they recognize what her being there has brought to Troy; but they also understand why this woman was worth fighting a war over. People often say that the Greek tragedies are great because the characters are so passionate. This scene comes to mind.
2. Aphrodite favors Paris because he gave her the golden apple and, in return, she has granted him the woman Helen. After he is nearly slaughtered in combat with Menelaus, Helen cools to the young stud. Aphrodite encourages Helen to go to his room and have sex with him to cheer him up after the battle and she openly defies the goddess: "Mysterious goddess, why are you trying to lead me on like this? You are plotting, I suppose, to carry me off to some still more distant town, in Phrygia or lovely Macedonia, to gratify some other favorite of yours who may be living in those parts?
Or is it that Menelaus has beaten Paris and wants to take me back home, me, his loathsome wife- so now you have to come here to try to lure me back to Paris? No, go and sit with him yourself. Forget you are a goddess. Never set foot on Olympus again but go and agonize over Paris, go and pamper him, and one day he will make you his wife or his concubine. I refuse to go and share that man's bed again- it would be quite wrong." Helen has no intention of being pimped out by Aphrodite again and openly defies a goddess- and is smacked down for it. I love the idea that it's the gods who make us horny and irrational, and the image of a mortal woman haughtily defying a deity. The gods play humans like instruments, but the strongest can hurl defiance at them and, in doing so, become a bit like gods themselves.
3. Hector takes leave of Andromache. The great warrior and son of the Trojan king, Hector, leaves for the battle and his wife Andromache begs him to stay home. This is a heart-rending scene. Hector has to go and fight- and die- in the war because his stupid little shit of a brother seduced and stole the wife of a King who treated them as guests. Hector has no respect for Paris, but he still feels compelled to do his duty and protect his city. He is obligated to fight to the death for an unworthy cause. Even worse, Andromache is asked to give up her husband and the father of her child because his brother Paris stupidly seduced a Greek king's wife. For one moment, we can all see the way out- Hector can, if he so chooses, leave to be with his wife and son; but instead, he will leave them alone with unguessable grief. He was born and raised to be a warrior and win glory instead of family and security; it's a lousy trade-off.
4. Achilles mourns Patroclus. After sending his comrade to fight in his armor, Achilles loses his closest companion and, even before he hears the news, the horses weep with the knowledge. When he does hear the news, Achilles collapses to the ground, pulling his hair out and pouring the soil over his head. His mother comes to him and Achilles tells her that now, "my dearest companion is dead, Patroclus, who was more to me than any other of my men, whom I loved as much as my own life... I have destroyed Patroclus." Now, Achilles no longer wants to live. But this is to the Greeks' advantage. Since he is fated to die in the War anyway, Achilles can return to avenge his companion without any fear.
5. Now on the rampage, Achilles is attacked by the River Scamander (pictured to the left) which rises up and tries to drown him for having clogged its waters with dead bodies! I love this scene because it's so totally bizarre and surreal, and I also love the idea of nature itself rising up in outrage against the horrors of human warfare. If only.
6. Achilles kills Hector and, in his rage and sorrow, won't allow anyone to claim and dispose of the body. This is an outrage in the ancient world- there must be a funeral. Finally, Priam, Hector's father, comes to Achilles and begs for his son's return. He tells Achilles that he himself is the age of Achilles's father, but will never see the return of his son after the war. Priam kneels down before Achilles- the man who killed his son- and begs forgiveness. The two of them break down weeping together. It is one of the most moving and startling images in the book, and the end of the story; two men broken by war and conflicting loyalties- Priam having lost everything and hanging on to his family duties; Achilles having avenged his companion's death, but fated to die.
When I read the Iliad in High School, it never really registered for me that it really is a great book. Homer is masterful in weaving together heroics, bloody battles, the imminent divine and the cripplingly human in a story that sucks you in and holds your attention. In doing so, he presents the full panorama of human types and behavior. I haven't a clue whether the academic approach keeps Homer with us as a living part of the culture, or simply turns it into a museum piece. But compare the Iliad to, say, Avatar or the latest Star Wars crapola, and it becomes crystal clear why it's been read for the last 2,700 year.