Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"The Iliad": Marching On

I started reading The Iliad once before I started reading through the Great Books. I believe I made it to Book 13 before taking the book back to the library and pursuing other reads. It wasn't that I didn't like it, but The Iliad is a long book and I had been reading a prose copy.

When I realized that the next book on my reading list was The Iliad, I made sure to get a verse translation (I read Robert Fagle's translation) and it made a world of difference. The long battle scenes that became overwhelmingly tedious in prose, transformed when put into verse. They were still long and I had drive myself to keep reading, but it was a good drive - like the weary soldiers marching on in the poem. Eventually the song of The Iliad got into my blood and it was easy to lose myself among the spears and shields.

I remember being surprised by the portrayal of the gods when I first read The Iliad. Keep in mind I've been well fed on Christian theology my entire life and, back then, I knew much less about Greek mythology than I do now. With my background, I had always viewed the divine as inherently good, just, and omnipotent. Homer writes the gods much like he writes his human characters: they have flaws, they quarrel with each other, they can have power struggles (Zeus isn't as secure on the Olympian throne as he likes to think), and they have limits to their knowledge. The major difference between gods and men in Homer's writing is power. The gods have incredible power and influence (though not infinite power, like the capital G God), whereas men are relative weaklings and even the great Hector and Achilles are powerless against the will of the gods. The inescapibility of fate is one of the major themes of The Iliad.

However, The Iliad is most known for its portrayal of the Trojan War. Homer doesn't seem to be making a comment on warfare, so much as simply describing it. The glories of war and the tragedy and waste of war seemed to be given equal footing. The introduction of the copy I was reading had a very fitting quote by Civil War general Robert E. Lee: "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." Before we get too drunk on the glory of war in the heroic age, Homer gives us a healthy dose of reality. Every soldier that is killed is given at least a brief background, so that every casualty feels like the death of an individual rather than the death of a Star Wars stormtrooper. Another interesting thing to note is that, although The Iliad is a Greek poem, their ancestors, the Achaeans are not portrayed as the "good guys" and the Trojans are not portrayed as the "bad guys". There is heroism and cowardice on both sides and although the gods are heavily involved behind the scenes, the Trojan War is not a "holy war". As I said before, the battle scenes are very long, but with the verse translation, I can't say I was ever bored.

Another point of interest for me was the contrast between Homer's heroes and the later heroes of chivalric romance, because I've had a life-long interest in knights - especially the chivalric ideal. In the essay "The Necessity of Chivalry", C. S. Lewis says that there are generally two types of men: a) the brave, but brutal at war and at home and b) the gentle and cultured, but cowardly. The first man has bravery and the second man has gentleness, but they are plagued by brutality and cowardice respectively. The world is "divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend". Ideally, the knight is a fusion of bravery and gentleness; not a work of nature, but a work of art.

In The Iliad this division between human nature can be seen in the soldiers who can fight, but don't seem to have appreciation of the finer things in life and characters like Paris who has gentleness, but is hopeless in battle. The Greek and Trojan soldiers have no mercy in battle and treat women as objects, while the knights of medieval romances are merciful in battle and treat women with reverence. Hector seemed to be the exception, as he was depicted as a great war leader and a loving husband and father. Hector was my favourite character and Achilles' treatment of his corpse made me cringe.

Overall, The Iliad has been the most enjoyable book on the reading list for quite a while and it feels good to be back to the classical world.