Iliad and blockbusters

Some people make a distinction between high art and entertainment. The Iliad is high art, a literary masterpiece and one of the pinnacles of Western civilisation. On the entertainment side you have books and films such as James Bond, Rambo, Die Hard, the Lord of the Rings and numerous others where the hero(s) against overwhelming odds manages to kill many of the enemy attacking them while the enemy mysteriously always manage to miss our hero whenever they shoot. Unlike the Iliad, these films could be described as junk food for the mind.

But not so fast! If you enjoy these films, you would probably enjoy the Iliad if you could get over the barrier of language and lack of familiarity with the background to the story. (Even in translation, the Iliad is quite difficult to read especially if the translation is quite faithful to the original.)

My point here is that if you enjoy the Iliad – and if you read it and don’t enjoy it then you haven’t really got it – then you will enjoy the battle scenes in exactly the same way that you enjoy the fights in these films. You are not reading the Iliad with a heightened artistic sensibility but watching these films in a lower state of intelligence. They are both tapping into the same area of the mind.

I have to admit that if I concede this then all those years I spent learning Greek would be wasted. All I needed to was to go to cinema every so often to watch the latest blockbuster. So I have to say that in some way the Iliad is superior but that will be the subject of some future post. For now I will illustrate my initial point with this scene from the Iliad where Patroclus is the hero. Here he is rampaging through the Trojans just like any hero in a blockbuster.

Patroclus, when he had cut off the front battalions of the Trojans, he forced them back again towards the ships. He managed to stop them from achieving their aim of  getting to the city (of Troy), but between the ships and the river and the high city wall he was rushing into them and killing them. He was getting revenge for the many Greeks that had been killed. So first he hit Pronoos with his shiny spear whose breast was exposed next to his shield and did for him. Next he rushed at Thestor, the son of Enops. He was sitting on his polished chariot cowering for he was struck out of his senses and the reins had slipped out of his hands. Coming right up to him, he pierced his right jaw with his spear and drove it through his teeth. Then he pulled him up by the spear right over the rim of the chariot, just like a man sitting on a sticking-out rock pulls a sacred fish out from the sea with a line and bronze hook. That’s the way he pulled him of his chariot with his mouth wide open using his shiny spear. Then he pushed him face down and his life left him as he fell.

Then Eryalos made a rush at him but Patroclus hit him with a stone in the middle of head and his whole head was split apart in his strong helmet. He fell down on his face on the ground and death the destroyer poured over him. And after that he brought down to the fertile ground Eurumas and Amphoteros and Epialtes and Polymelos,son of Argeas, all one after another.

Πάτροκλος δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν πρώτας ἐπέκερσε φάλαγγας,
ἂψ ἐπὶ νῆας ἔεργε παλιμπετές, οὐδὲ πόληος
εἴα ἱεμένους ἐπιβαινέμεν, ἀλλὰ μεσηγὺ
νηῶν καὶ ποταμοῦ καὶ τείχεος ὑψηλοῖο
κτεῖνε μεταΐσσων, πολέων δ᾽ ἀπετίνυτο ποινήν.
ἔνθ᾽ ἤτοι Πρόνοον πρῶτον βάλε δουρὶ φαεινῷ
στέρνον γυμνωθέντα παρ᾽ ἀσπίδα, λῦσε δὲ γυῖα:
δούπησεν δὲ πεσών: ὃ δὲ Θέστορα Ἤνοπος υἱὸν
δεύτερον ὁρμηθείς: ὃ μὲν εὐξέστῳ ἐνὶ δίφρῳ
ἧστο ἀλείς: ἐκ γὰρ πλήγη φρένας, ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα χειρῶν
ἡνία ἠΐχθησαν: ὃ δ᾽ ἔγχεϊ νύξε παραστὰς
γναθμὸν δεξιτερόν, διὰ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πεῖρεν ὀδόντων,
ἕλκε δὲ δουρὸς ἑλὼν ὑπὲρ ἄντυγος, ὡς ὅτε τις φὼς
πέτρῃ ἔπι προβλῆτι καθήμενος ἱερὸν ἰχθὺν
ἐκ πόντοιο θύραζε λίνῳ καὶ ἤνοπι χαλκῷ:
ὣς ἕλκ᾽ ἐκ δίφροιο κεχηνότα δουρὶ φαεινῷ,
κὰδ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπὶ στόμ᾽ ἔωσε: πεσόντα δέ μιν λίπε θυμός.
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ᾽ Ἐρύλαον ἐπεσσύμενον βάλε πέτρῳ
μέσσην κὰκ κεφαλήν: ἣ δ᾽ ἄνδιχα πᾶσα κεάσθη
ἐν κόρυθι βριαρῇ: ὃ δ᾽ ἄρα πρηνὴς ἐπὶ γαίῃ
κάππεσεν, ἀμφὶ δέ μιν θάνατος χύτο θυμοραϊστής.
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ᾽ Ἐρύμαντα καὶ Ἀμφοτερὸν καὶ Ἐπάλτην
Τληπόλεμόν τε Δαμαστορίδην Ἐχίον τε Πύριν τε
Ἰφέα τ᾽ Εὔιππόν τε καὶ Ἀργεάδην Πολύμηλον
πάντας ἐπασσυτέρους πέλασε χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Iliad 16.394

Of course Patroclus does eventually get killed!

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4 Responses to Iliad and blockbusters

  1. Pingback: The sacred fish | platosparks

  2. “But not so fast! If you enjoy these films, you would probably enjoy the Iliad if you could get over the barrier of language and lack of familiarity with the background to the story.”
    Therein lies the problem, right? In this quick-satisfaction world of ours I don’t have to do much work to enjoy Rambo, but the amount of work required to red the Iliad is far too cumbersome for far too many people. I agree, completely, with your points, however.
    Do you think there is a way to get the Iliad to be understood by a wide audience if it is just picked up and read?


    • platosparks says:

      Well I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first read the Odyssey in English when I was thirteen, I thoroughly enjoyed it but it wasn’t so much a translation as a re-telling. If somehow you could re-tell the Iliad but keep the story then I think it would appeal to a mass audience. You would lose a lot but you would also keep a lot. On the other hand the film “Troy” wasn’t a re-telling. It was a completely different story


      • I absolutely loved “Troy”! My colleagues in Classics tend to hate it, but I am more of the ‘did-you-see-that-fight-between-hector-and-Achilles’ kind of guy. I could appreciate it as an action film loosely based on a work of high art, I suppose.

        I do see, and agree with, your point on the re-telling of a story as a possible bridge between the art form and the more base methods.

        One of my first encounters with Ancient History was the re-telling of the events at Thermopylae in “The 300 Spartans”, which I watched in 1990, at the ripe age of eight. Even though that film was a huge classic, it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s graphic novel (1998), that I became intrigued by the events at Thermopylae. If felt there was a sense of exaggeration that made the story readable and the history intriguing. By the time the film “300” came out in 2006 I was in love with the subject. I think the graphic novel did more for that than the more-accurate (only in some ways) film.

        You make me think of C. S. Lewis’ “Till We have Faces”. I thought that story was a brilliant re-telling of Greek myth, and one bound to attract more of an audience than the original account in “The Golden Ass” by Lucius Appuleius.

        Yes, I must agree with you.

        Liked by 1 person

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