What makes a great work of literature. Or put it another way why is the Iliad a great work. I have just spent the last eight months reading the Iliad. I started off reading each of the first twelve books twice then when I had completed those books I read them all again for the third time. I repeated the process for the next twelve books and then when I had read all twenty four books three times I read the whole lot again for the fourth time. I read at least a hundred lines very day in Greek. This was not the first time I had read the Iliad but it was the first time for many years.
So my purpose in this post is to try to show what the power of the Iliad is and why almost three thousand years after it was composed it it is still regarded as a major work.
The first thing but not the most important is the poetry or the actual sound of the words. Now most of this must be lost even when reading in Greek. We do not know exactly how Ancient Greek was pronounced. When reading it in my head or aloud I ignore the accents; I stress the long syllables; I don’t pronounce the thetas or phis or chis correctly. My vowels must be all over the place but even with all this an incredible amount of the poetry comes through. I notice the poetry more when I am reading slowly and with difficulty. It just suddenly strikes me how Homer has achieved an effect by meter or the sounds of the consonants or vowels or by various devices. When I am reading more quickly the poetry just works on me without me noticing how he does it.
The poetry is there to enhance and embellish the story, to make it vivid. It makes the actions that are described seem important. There is another way that Homer makes human actions seem important that is by involving the gods. There is a bit of supension of disbelief for us and we have to understand that the gods can both represent our basic emotions and life in a profound way and at the same time be objects of comical ridicule. I am sure that the audience for Homer would have been able to have held these opposing ideas in their heads without any problem although for some such as Plato it did cause problems.
So now let’s get to the story. To summarise, the Greeks are trying to capture the city of Troy. Agamemnon, the leader in chief of the Greeks quarrels with Achilles, the mightiest warrior in the Greek army. Agamemnon has to give up the girl who been alloted to him as part of his share of booty so after a quarrel with Achilles takes a girl who has been allotted to him. He can do this because he is commander in chief. Achilles in his turn refuses to fight and refuses to let the Myrmidions who serve under him to fight. He also asks his mother Thetis, a goddess of the sea, to intervene with Zeus to turn the tide of victory to the Trojans so that Agamemnon will pay for the slight. Eventually the Trojans get the upper hand and are in danger of overwhelming the Greek camp and setting their ships on fire. Hector a son of the Trojan king and their chief warrior is unstoppable and many Greeks are slain. Eventually Achilles partly relents and lets his comrade and dearest friend Patroclus lead the Myrmidions out but tells him only to drive the Trojans away from the camp and when he has done this to return. Patroclus disobeys and continues to drive the Trojans to Troy until he is killed by Hector.
At this point Achilles is roused to a great fury against the Trojans who have killed his best friend. He goes on a killing spree killing many Trojans without mercy until he eventually kills Hector. This is not just normal war; for example he takes some Trojans alive so he can sacrifice them at the funeral of Pafroclus which he holds after killing Hector. When he has killed Hector, he tries to desecrate his body by dragging it behind his chariot and exposing it for the dogs and carrion birds to eat. The normal and decent behaviour would be to return the body to the family for a ransom so that it can have a decent burial. In the last book under the instructions of the gods he returns Hector’s body for a ransom.
Well that’s the basis of the story although there are many diversions along the way. But what makes it great? There is no analytical answer. You can’t say it’s great for this or that reason. The only way to understand it is to examine your emotions once you have read it. The best way to describe my emotions is to say I was drained. Throughout the book Achilles was gripped by anger; at first a slow mouldering anger against Agamemnon. This anger caused the death of many Greeks but he never took any responsibility for this. As far as he was concerned the fault lay entirely with Agamemnon but his revenge hurt not only Agamemnon but his other fellow Greeks. And then when his anger mounts against the Trojans he loses all decency. His chief opponent, Hector, is a thoroughly decent man. He is fighting to protect his city and the women and children. He loves and shows affection for his wife and child. He is human; he makes a tactical error when he does not draw back the Trojans to the city when Achilles is roused but he takes full responsibility for the error with fatal consequences for himself. When he meets Achilles for the final battle, at first he runs away but then turns round showing a more human courage which can waver but then collects itself.
Meanwhile Achilles is a more one dimensional character governed by the single emotion of anger. But it is his story that the book is about and it is his emotions we are caught up in; not Agamanenon who,overreached himself when he took Achilles’ girl, nor Hector although we may be more sympathetic to him. And there is something else about Achilles; we know that his death is imminent. His death is not part of the story of the Iliad but he knows and we know that it will very shortly occur. At the end of the story Achilles has been through this great emotion and come out the other side. And what is he at the end. I would say that we are intensely aware that his time is over. Instead of being a superhero he is now diminished. His anger is abated enough to allow Hector’s body to be ransomed. The only thing left for him is death.
Now our lives do not reflect Achilles’ but there are parallels and this is what makes the Iliad great. We live our lives, all of us knowing that we are mortal and even if we are not short lived we will die in the end. Meanwhile we are all trying to do something with our lives whether big or small; furthering our career, raising a family or just battling with our own demons. And at the end there may be a time when we have done all this and we are just waiting for the end; a time when we are diminished, no longer active participants in the world. So the travails of our life in a way reflect those of Achilles’ and at the end we are spent but nevertheless, as Achilles is elevated by the poetry and force of the story, so our lives feel elevated by reading the Iliad.