Trevor's Reviews > The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer
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Mar 07, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, literature

I read the Odyssey at Uni and really loved it. A romp off to parts unknown with a man who is good company from a distance. As with much of fiction, the people I am delighted to spend lots of time with on the page are not necessarily those I would want to spend anytime with otherwise.

I’ve always meant to get around to reading this. I mean, this Homer guy only wrote two books and I had enjoyed the other one, so … so, a mere twenty years later (how time flies) I got around to reading this one.

The problem was that I knew exactly what this one was about. You know, this is about Helen getting taken to Troy after Paris wins her after he judges which of the goddesses is the most beautiful which pisses off the Greeks and then there’s the siege and sacking of Troy after that rather clever trick with the wooden horse. Not much point reading this one if you already know the whole damn story.

Now, you might be thinking – this guy should have put a spoiler alert at the start of this. You might also be thinking – this guy probably thinks it’s okay not to put a spoiler alert on this because everyone already knows this story. Umm, I haven’t put a spoiler alert on this because I haven’t told you anything that is actually in this story yet.

Look, I know, I’m as surprised as you are. “Bugger me with a brick”, as a friend of mine would say. The idea Homer could be allowed to get away with writing a book about something everyone knows it is about and not actually writing about any of these things is, to say the least, rather frustrating. I’m sure that in some countries there is probably even a law against this sort of thing.

It might just be me, but I would have thought that if you are going to write the FIRST epic in the Western Literary Tradition it does seem somewhat presumptuous to assume people know the back story. I know I can be naïve at times, but if first is to mean anything, surely it doesn’t really allow the writer to assume everyone already knows the back story. Instead, this book starts a mere 9 years after the war had began. There is precious little by way of explaining how we got here. And it ends the day before the final battle for Troy and before anyone seems to have come up with the idea of a wooden horse with a hollow middle.

Spoilers start more or less now – if you are worried.

A lot of this is boys’ own adventure stuff. Also a bit like the Godfather films in which they seem to have decided not to kill any two major characters in exactly the same way. Bronze swords knocking out teeth before plunging through skull with attendant buckets of blood and spraying brain matter plays, be well assured, a large part in this book. If I have any criticism at all it is that the war bits were over-long and after a while became all a bit same/same. In fact, by close to the end I was thinking I had had more than enough and was looking forward to the whole thing being over.

And then that totally unexpected end! Jesus, what a way to finish a book. I was blown away.

Achilles does not really come out of this book looking too good. I know he is meant to be a bit of a hero (the only things I knew about him before this being he had been dipped in a river as a child to protect him from harm and held by the ankles, so therefore these were his only venerable parts – and of course, none of this is actually mentioned here, though I suspect you are meant to already know). The whole book revolves around Achilles being annoyed at having his girlfriend taken from him and him spending most of the time in a petulant rage about to go home, stuck in one of his ships while all hell is breaking lose around him. Hector certainly seems the ‘better man’ in all this – even though he is a Trojan. This was something else I hadn’t expected.

The thing I really like about the Greek Gods – and the reason Plato said that the poets shouldn’t be allowed to write stories about them – is that they are just this huge dysfunctional family. Nothing they like better than getting involved in human affairs and causing infinitely more trouble than they are worth. I also like that even when they know the outcome of something – Troy will fall, for example – that doesn’t stop them remaining loyal and supporting their favourite side all the same. It is as if the West Moorabbin Under Twelves are being put up against Manchester United all stars team and the dads of the under twelves are turning up to support their kids. Everyone knows the outcome, but all the same… “Go Johnny!”

A lot of this is of more than just passing interest in the sense that it gives a fascinating (and tragically realistic) account of the horrors of warfare in the ancient world – and these horrors are many and graphic. Both sides foresee what is to happen to the women of Troy once the battle is over, for example, and this is none-too-pretty. All the same, after book after book of this I was well over these endless descriptions. But then book 24. Hector has been killed. Achilles killed him to revenge the death of his friend Patroclus, who Hector had killed and tried to quarter and feed to the dogs. Achilles is overpowered by grief for his friend and as a mark of respect slaughters 12 boys of Troy as an offering at the funeral of Patroclus (hard to express my disgust at this – not the act of a ‘hero’). He also spends days dragging Hector’s body about (ironically enough, attached to his chariot by the ankles) around the funeral site of his friend in some sort of bizarre ritual that is neither improved in report nor in deed, I think the line ran). I had never really thought about the significance of bodies after they have died in war – but psychologically, knowing (or worse, as in this case, not knowing, but assuming) what the enemy are doing to the dead body of your child, is, without question, unspeakably horrible.

To regain his son’s body and to give it a proper funeral, Priam goes to Achilles and is helped there by the gods. He kisses the hand of his son’s murderer and begs for his body so as to be able to give him a proper funeral. Like I said, a remarkably moving end to the poem.

I used to think that a good definition of a classic would be ‘a book that is rarely about what you think it is about before you read it’. As always, I was much too timid in my definition. It seems that a classic is NEVER about what you think it will be about before you read it. If they are particularly good classics, they are also not about what you think they were about while you were reading them either. This is an excellent case in point.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by C. (new) - added it

C. That's a really great definition of a classic! Some of the best classics I've read were about completely different things to what I expected.


message 2: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W Trevor: Geez, you write great reviews. I look forward to them.


Trevor Thank you both, I was particularly pleased with this one.


Brad Yeah, I'm with both Eric and Choupette. And that bit about Man Utd, a nice bit of levity, but also a perfect analogy for the Greek Gods and their people. This makes me want to read the Iliad again.


message 5: by Helen (Helena/Nell) (last edited Mar 08, 2009 11:36AM) (new)

Helen (Helena/Nell) That is one epic review. It made me laugh out loud in several places, and in total it is a glorious celebration and it makes you think AS WELL!

Up with the Iliad.

Go McCandless!


message 6: by Bruce (new)

Bruce I particularly like the Fagels translation, although I also find it fun to read both of Homer's epics in several different translations, since one comes away with a slightly different flavor with each.


message 7: by Richard (last edited Mar 08, 2009 02:15PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Richard Excellent review again, Trevor. I distinctly recall the "haven't we seen this battle before?" feeling. I always liked Hector more than any of the fellows on the other side. Having a wife and kid to worry about humanized him.

Have you read the The Aeneid yet? (Never mind, I see you hit that one recently, too. Any recommendations on a translation?)


Trevor Thank you all. I was at the art gallery yesterday and bumped into George, a friend both here at GoodReads and in the real world, and we discussed the Iliad for ten minutes or so. We talked about how a central national poem (as the Iliad is to the Greeks - George is a Greek-Australian) you might be excused for thinking that the Greeks might be shown as the good guys. And yet, they really don't. It is hard not to have much more sympathy for the Trojans. Another of my expectations that was shattered by this poem.

(I like the idea I've left you with the impression that I'm constantly nipping off to the art gallery and bumping into random friends that I can discuss Classical Literature with - it has happened once in 45 years, I would like it to happen more often, and according to the Secret that is all it takes).


Trevor I listened to the Aeneid as a talking book last year at some stage. Bruce would be better able to give advice on this, I think. I really enjoyed the Aeneid, I have thought about it a lot since hearing it. Particularly Dido, her story comes back to me repeatedly. It is a bit more like the Odyssey.


message 10: by C. (new) - added it

C. I'll have to try and bump into you at an art gallery some time...


Trevor We should decide what to talk about first. I've done Homer, perhaps Plato, I always like chatting about Plato.


message 12: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Buckley Trevor wrote: "We should decide what to talk about first. I've done Homer, perhaps Plato, I always like chatting about Plato."

I read the Odyssey myself a couple of months back and was bowled over. You are definitely persuading me to look at the Iliad, maybe the Aeneid too. Finding time is the problem!!!


message 13: by C. (new) - added it

C. Actually, the only classics I have read are the Theban plays... I know a little about Plato though.


Trevor Ah, then we will have to meet at the Ian Potter, if we are doing Antigone we will need to be near the Antipodes.


Helen (Helena/Nell) What is 'the Ian Potter'?


message 16: by C. (new) - added it

C. Sure, Antipodes, Antigone, whatever.


Richard Helen (Helena/Nell) wrote: "What is 'the Ian Potter'?"

Google tells me that "The Ian Potter Foundation is one of Australia's leading private philanthropic organisations", and they apparently have museum kinda stuff (the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, The Ian Potter Centre at the National Gallery). Which begs the question, who the heck was this Ian Potter guy?

Not so interesting: Wikipedia says "Sir Ian Potter (25 August 1902 – 24 October 1994) was an influential Australian businessman and philanthropist." So just a wealthy dead white guy smart enough to endow all sorts of cultural organizations with his wealth to keep his name alive, but silly enough to think that keeping his name alive would mean people would remember anything meaningful about him.


message 18: by Trevor (last edited Mar 10, 2009 11:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I had always assumed it was Harry Potters younger brother. But I guess he can't have been.

I know when they opened the new Australian Gallery at Federation Square I thought it very odd that it should also be called the Ian Potter Gallery, given that gallery already existed at Melb Uni. Out of protest I've never bothered doing the research you have done. The photo of him at Fed Square makes him look pleasant enough, but then, I guess they were hardly likely to pick a photo that made him look like a pain in the bum.


Helen (Helena/Nell) I figure it might be fun pottering around the Potter, any road, and maybe even pottering around the Potter discussing Plato.


J.G. Keely Enjoyed the review. I just wanted to point out that Achilles' invulnerability isn't added to the myth until the first century AD, which is about a millennium after The Iliad was written (depending on dating). He even gets injured at one point in The Iliad, though with all the blood flying around, I missed it, myself.

It's true what you say: we truly don't know much about these classics until we read them.


message 21: by Asha (new) - added it

Asha I just downloaded the epub version. Might read it toward the end of Jan. Good review, Trevor. Gives a fine insight on what the book must be like.


Martin Philipson Hi, fun review! :)

But it seems you don't know about the Epic Cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_Cycle), which is the name given to the whole collection of literary epics concerning the Trojan War. They were all written in the same style as The Iliad and The Odyssey, dactylic hexameter and so forth, though Homer was not the author of them all (maybe all the other works were written by different authors, it is unclear). Sadly, only The Iliad and Odyssey are extant (surviving) today, the rest have been lost, although a kind of summary of their stories have been pieced together from references in extant works.

There once was a whole Homer-style epic concerning the Apple of Discord and the judgment of the goddesses' beauty by Paris, there was another book on the horse and the fall of Troy,
Achilles got killed by a poisoned arrow in the foot in some one of the works, and so on. Thus the Epic Cycle includes events from both before and after the war. For instance, there is one story that explains how practically all of Greece were persuaded to go to war in the first place: many years before Paris abducted Helen all the important kings and lords in Greece courted Helen for her beauty. Since everyone was so smitten with her they feared that wars could break out over her (gotta love that ancient Greek irony), and so it was decided that they would all swear an oath, promising to defend the eventual groom if anyone should try to take Helen by force from him. This, they thought, would ensure that all the suitors would have to accept her father's choice of son-in-law, which then turned out to be Menelaus. Of course, they didn't count on her being kidnapped by a foreign prince, and so all of Greece had to go to war...

Then there were also at least one great epic on "the returns", chronicling what actually happened to the victors after they had sacked Troy. For most of them it ended badly, because of reasons. Variants on the returns actually survive, so to speak, in the form of plays. Greek playwrights wrote comedies and tragedies as you probably know, and some surviving tragedies are about the Trojan War. There are only few extant plays left actually (yes, there's a pattern here, most works of ancient Greece are lost), by only three playwrights: Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Everyone of them wrote at least something on the war, Euripides wrote a whole bunch of plays concerning it.

For instance, there's a play of his called Iphigenia in Aulis, which takes place when the Greek fleet is about to sail for Troy. They get stuck on an Island called Aulis because Artemis is angry with them, and the goddess decrees that only if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to her will she give them wind again so they can sail on. Long story short, he sends a message home saying that Iphigenia should come on a ship to marry some great lord (Achilles I think), but when she gets there she is murdered. This later comes back to haunt him, which is discussed in some of Aeschylus plays:

Aeschylus wrote the only surviving tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. In the first play Agamemnon comes home and is murdered by his wife Clytaimnestra, because she wasn't happy about the death of her daughter ten years earlier. Then, in the next play Agamemnon's son Orestes avenges him by killing his own mother, and in the last play Orestes seeks the gods' forgiveness after he has slain a parent, which was a big no-no.

Sophocles wrote Ajax, a short play about the fate of the title character while still on the beaches of Troy, after the Iliad and after the death of Achilles, but before the fall of Troy. The Greeks had difficulty deciding who should get Achilles armor after the man died, and both Odysseus and Ajax vied for the honour. Eventually the others voted in favour of Odysseus, and Ajax went berserk. First he tried to kill Odysseus and the other kings, and when he failed he killed himself out of shame. Note that he wasn't ashamed that he tried to kill his comrades, he was ashamed that he failed! Sympathetic guy.

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Anyway, sorry about the rant, but this is why The Iliad didn't contain any of the things "it should have", because that was in other works :)
And so of course, The Iliad was not the first Western literary work at the time it was written, but it is now, to our sorrow.


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