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.
Of course Patroclus does eventually get killed!