The Iliad

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Not so much a review as a rant. I'm only a short way into it and I remember why I found it such difficult going the first time.

I know I'm going to get blasted for it, but I'm going to lay it on the line. Was there ever another group of whining, self-involved, petulant, petty, pugnacious, undisciplined, unlikable people in all of literature. From Achilles who goes off to sulk in his tent until his friend is killed and then emerges to slaughter Troy's finest and do his darnedest to disgrace him (thank Heavens Thetis missed a spot), to lying (aka wily) Odysseus, and arrogant, egotistical and ultimately useless Agamemnon (once again, one finds oneself cheering Clytemnestra on). Ultimately what Achilles succeeds in doing is showing us what a belligerent, bellicose boor he is. As for Odysseus, wily Odysseus, the less said the better.

What an unpleasant lot, thoroughly deserving of whatever is dished out. Add to that quarrelsome, petty, ignorant, and foul-tempered gods, goddesses, minor nymphs, seers, you name it.

Indeed, a thoroughly unpleasant exploration of a thoroughly repugnant side of human nature.

And absolutely perfect for Advent because it shows a glaring, harshly revealing picture of humanity in the depth of the fall with no sign of the redemption we know so well. And what is frightening to me is the way modern society seems to be assuming more and more of the characteristics of the foul society that Homer praises.

At least The Odyssey had monsters and witches to take your mind off of how really awful Odysseus is as a person.

I know, I just got drummed out of the Classics clique and have lost all my credentials--but I sure get tired of being told how really great this is (and it undoubtedly is) without the clear picture of how really repugnant nearly everything Homer writes about is.

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I'm glad I'm not the only one to think so. In general it seems like the monsters in Greek mythology are more likeable - or at least less pathetic - than either the people or the gods.

You sound just like Hannah when she was reading The Odyssey for English class. She never had read about such a "big jerk" and seen such a terrible set of standards as those that the Greeks admired. She developed quite an invective vocabulary as the rants went on daily until the book was done. (And she still got an A in the class ...)

Dear Julie,

It's a good thing she didn't have to read the Iliad. At least the Odyssey has the charm of all sort of monsters and adventures and things happening. Yes, Odysseus and crew are the same horrible jerks they were in the Trojan war; but at least we get to see Lotus Eaters and Polyphemus, Scylla and Charybdis and other charms. In the Iliad all you get are horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people and goading even more horrible gods to do even worse things to those even less worthy. Yechhhh!

And yet, the poetry and the language are just magnificent. It's kind of like my reaction to The Great Gatsby.

But, she's absolutely right--horrible examples, horrible values, horribly behaved people.



In the Iliad all you get are horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people and goading even more horrible gods to do even worse things to those even less worthy. Yechhhh!

Whoo-hooo! You bring the chips and salsa, I'll bring the rum.

I love the Iliad, though, because of the strangely formalistic manner of presenting everything: the reader gets the perspective of watching this great hieratic narrative, unfolding like Trajan's column. And how can you not love the description of the shield?

Look, I really, really like the Iliad. (Classics major speaking here.) However, I'd completely agree with your assessment of the characters. From a modern, Christian point of view, the only admirable characters are Hector and some of the other more minor players.

I'm not sure that Achilles was meant to be likable, to be honest. There are a lot of interesting ways to look at the Iliad, but one of the ones that has always appealed to me is as a polemic against the gods. Achilles great fault is that he indulges in wrath like unto that of the gods: i.e. inhuman, unrelenting and irrational.

It strikes me reading works like the Iliad that most ancient pagans really didn't like being pagan, and didn't like or trust the gods a bit. They may have believed in them, and made sacrifices to placate them, but they didn't like them.

Oh good. I'm not the only one who was depressed at the fact that the only decent person in the entire book (Hector) is murdered and mocked by the hero (Achilles). Or maybe the anti-hero. I never bothered to try to work it out, because I got tired of reading "rosy-fingered dawn" and "he groaned as his bowels spilled onto the earth."

Honestly, I spent most of my life being told by people what a wonderful novel this was, and how it inspired them to love literature, and then I sit down to read it, and learn that it's Hollywood trash before there was a Hollywood.

Okay, to be fair: maybe the Greeks didn't like Achilles and the gods that much, and maybe the value of the text is more in what an achievement it was, or something. But, I'm not so sure. Look:
- Are there any other Greek epics that their culture preserved? (besides the Odyssey, which like another commenter I thought was much better)
- If so, what were they like, and why aren't they lauded so much?
- If not, are we really to believe that the Greeks had only one good poet (or school of poets, or whatever) who produced only two epics worth preserving? After all, Plato and Aristotle were preserved, but not the cynics, so the Greeks had *some* taste.
- Is it possible that an awful lot of the quality of the Greek text is lost by translation into English?
- St. Augustine's comments on paganism in The City of God should be taken into consideration.
- It's curious that the Renaissance fell in love with Homer's characters and stories and embraced them in art, sometimes with much more enthusiasm than the Christian characters and stories that had come down through tradition. I wonder if the reason these texts are so prized isn't because their values were prized by the pseudo-Christianity of the Renaissance and modern period, which were characterized by a lot of lust, greed, and violence, along with attempts to rationalize them as *good*, whereas past ages had at least admitted that these things needed repentance.

Okay, there's my less-than-educated opinion :-)

Dear Jack,

I think sometimes people are afraid to speak out because they are told that this is a great classic and they should love it. The poetry and the ability of the poetry to evoke strong reactions does suggest how powerfully it is written. One commenter noted that it may not have been Homer's purpose to extol Achilles, but rather to rant at the useless gods he represents.

Let it be so then. And I can grant that the power, scope of vision, and depth of the poetry are such as to make it a classic of Western Literature. However, I can still disagree as to its "greatness" in comparison to other works of Western Literature. And those who laud the Iliad over the Odyssey seem to me sadly mistaken as to the relative merits.

Even so, the Fagles translation I am reading may keep me going to the end. I am reading the two Greek epics in preparation, I hope for a Christmas gift of the Aenied in the Fagles translation.

So, while I might acknowledge the greatness of the work, I do not see it as intrinsically better than the Odyssey, nor do I see it as a particularly good work for young people to read as I think it teaches quite explicitly some very, very bad things. Morally, I find the work suspect, to say the least.

This is by way of saying, by and large, I agree with what you've written.



Jack and Steven:

Don't bother trying to make yourselves feel better about not liking the Iliad. Just admit there's something wrong with you, and move on with your lives.

Dear Tom


I suppose you have me. The first step in any cure is to admit you have a problem.

The second step is to start liking the solution better than you do the problem. THAT'S the hard part. Getting on with life in the face of such a burden!



Personally, I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey because it's more character than adventure based. Though the Odyssey certainly features the pagan family virtues of a warm family reunion!

I think the key in reading Homer is to keep in mind that he is probably the most rawly pagan of the great classical authors. (Probably mainly by virtue of being earliest.) Like him or hate him, he's got to be seen as a pagan thinking in a very pagan way.

Hesiod, who wrote a couple hundred years later, already has a tendency to try to remake the gods as agents of moral and vocational absolutes. And by the time you reach the great dramatists, you definately are seeing a lot of grappling with higher meaning, which made the ground ripe for neo-platonic mysticism and also for monotheism.

The Romans were the British of the ancient world. They were pagan of a sort, but they invested so much in "good old fashioned decency" that they never tended to believe anything to extremes. You get neither the unabandoned paganism of Homer nor the philosophical heights of Plato and Aristotle among the Romans.

I really like the Iliad. (And I loved the really good translation with the really good actor as an audiobook. Oral poetry should be aurally experienced, the end.)

Of course the people suck! Bronze Age heroes are always big murderous psychos, big murderous whiny babies, big murderous treacherous kings, or wily guys, or guys who start fights. Look at Cuchulain! Look at the story of the heroes' banquet, as thrown by the poisontongued guy!

(I so wanted Brad Pitt to play Cuchulain. He did the salmon leap, he did the chariot, he had the sulking and the psycho parts down. We just needed the special effects of turning him inside out in his battle rage, and we'd be golden!)

All the likable people are always on the losing side. So you'll be sorry to see them lose. Otherwise, there'd be no moral reason for an Bronze Age listener to think of the losers as people, would there?

That doesn't mean I don't like the stories, though. Bronze Age stories are like soap operas, except entertaining things happen and there's lots of deeds.

Dear DarwinCatholic,

Yes it is character driven, but it is filled with such awful characters, why would one wish to be involved with them at all? I'll take the adventure, thank you. I can then at least try to ignore how really very awful Odysseus is.

But I do like your points about the evolution of character through time, and it does give me hope that my reexploration of the Aenied will not be nearly so tedious nor so difficult as the Iliad has been and continues to be.

(Add to the awful characters the endless Catalogue of soldiers on the Greek front and you have the perfect remedy for insomnia. Rather than counting sheep one can count the legions from each region of Greece and their leaders. Oh, get me to Helen before I sink.




Just a guess: You're not a big fan of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, are you?

Dear Tom,

As you are well aware by now, consistency is not one of my strong points. As a result, you'll not be surprised to find that James Cain and Jim Thompson are on my list of all-time favorites. Perhaps because even though there isn't often a likable character anywhere in the work, I can sympathize with the foibles that take nonentities and turn them into dispicable people.

What I can't manage to muster much sympathy for are these bronze-age brats. Shakespeare did it all rather better in Troilus and Cressida. I get the impression from that play that he may have held somewhat similar views of the Iliad.

But thanks for reminding me of some very pleasant reading--Jim Thompson is an unjustly neglected master.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 15, 2006 12:37 PM.

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