Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Iliad

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Around 1200 BC, pillaging warriors from a confederation of Greek kingdoms arrived by sea to siege a walled city on the Turkish coast, a city called Troy. The ancient Greek epic poem about the Trojan War, called the Iliad, was put into its final form around 750 BC, perhaps by a bard named Homer.

According to the excellent taped lectures on the Iliad by Prof. Elizabeth Vandiver, available from The Great Courses, the literary structure of the Iliad, imitated over the last 2700 years, seems modern because it is actually the source for the techniques of Western literature.

The Iliad's action, which takes place near the end of the war, spans just weeks. It begins, like today's movies, in medias res--"in the middle of things"--with a dramatic quarrel between two Greek leaders as egos clash after ten years' fighting. Multiple storylines take place simultaneously: battles; factions of the Greeks; Trojans on the battlefield and behind the walls; the gods' arguments among themselves.

I read the prose translation made in 1898 by Samuel Butler and revised by Malcolm M. Willcock. From my point of view, the Iliad is cluttered by what appears to be oral history: the Catalogue of Ships; the cast of seeming thousands--each warrior's name and origin, who he kills, how he dies; lengthy taunts and discussions during hand-to-hand combat that tell complex backstories of minor or walk-on characters; etc. In other words, I wasn't particularly interested in the battle aspect of it, its (literally) gory and genealogical detail; yet I racked my brain trying to picture how the battles were actually organized.

Some motivations are also, to put it conservatively, not modern; although modern analogues in my opinion abound. Examples: the sense of honor and duty that virtually all American men had until the 1960's; army culture ("Do you think you will live forever?" one Trojan ally asks his comrade, in a familiar foxhole exhortation); urban gang mores. For interpreting the Greeks' own culture, though, I could not have done without Prof. Vandiver's Great Courses' lectures.

There is much to reflect on here, but one of my conclusions concerns the Iliad within its own culture. My understanding is that, along with the Odyssey, it was taken throughout ancient times as a kind of textbook for appropriate behavior. Yet it struck me as inherently subversive:

  • The Greek hero Achilles' well-reasoned rant rejecting the warrior ethic
  • How the whiny, psychologically self-defeating Achilles vanquishes the unselfish and focused Trojan hero Hector
  • The pettiness of the gods, for whom the Trojan War is a game

I found the Iliad perhaps only intermittently compelling, yet extremely rewarding.

Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro