The Iliad

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Iliad
by Homer

Set in Ancient Greece, The Iliad is an epic poem about a decade-long war. The book starts when the Trojans and Achaeans have already been at war for years. The war itself begins because Paris (a Trojan), steals Helen, the wife of Menelaus (an Achaean). This gives the Achaeans an excuse to load up their ships and head to Troy to attack them. Helen is the woman behind the infamous “face that launched a thousand ships.”


Paris’ brother Hector is a great warrior, unlike Paris, and because of this he leads the Trojan side of the battle. The Achaeans’ greatest warrior is Achilles, but a falling out with Agamemnon (Menelaus’ brother, leader of the Greeks) over spoils of war causes Achilles to refuse to fight. It’s not until Hector kills his close friend, Patroclus, that Achilles rejoins the war to avenge his friend’s death.

Confused yet? It’s pretty straight forward while you’re reading it, but it sounds convoluted when you try to summarize it. It’s considered the greatest war story ever told and so obviously there are a lot of battle scenes.

I really liked the moral dilemmas, but after awhile the battles seemed repetitive. I loved The Odyssey, (Homer’s book that followed one of the warriors on his journey home after the Trojan War), so much because it’s one man’s journey and every aspect of his adventure is new and unexpected. With the Iliad, Homer has to convey the exhaustion the men feel after fighting the same battle for years. The fatigue was contagious and I felt it about half way through the book. Things pick up towards the end because big players are dying and you know it’s all coming to a head.

The plot is frustrating at times, because the meddlesome gods cause more problems than they solve. They’re petty and territorial and they choose humans that they want to champion and they don’t care who is hurt along the way. It also seems to remove the element of free choice in the warriors; lives. They can choose to do something, but the gods will just prevent it from happening if they want to.

After Hector is killed there is a brief mention of Helen's loneliness. She was taken from her home and is treated horribly by most people in Troy because they see her as the reason for the war. Hector was always kind to her and she realizes that none of her only friends is now dead and the loneliness is overwhelming. Even though this is a tiny part, it was really poignant to me. She’s always painted as a guilty party in this legend, leaving her husband for another man, causing a war, etc. I never thought about how terrible her life must have been.

I couldn't believe that the infamous Trojan Horse makes no appearance in The Iliad. It's my own fault for assuming it was part of the book, but I kept waiting for that part ... and then it ended. Apparently the Trojan Horse in mentioned in The Odyssey, which I remember, and then the full story is found in The Aeneid by Virgil.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is the exchange between Priam and Achilles. Priam (Hector’s father) goes to talk to Achilles after his son is killed. He begs Achilles to let him have Hector’s body. The beauty of this scene is that it strips away ten-years of war and reduces the powerful Priam and Achilles to two grieving men. They aren’t on opposite ends of an epic battle; they’re just heartbroken individuals lamenting the cost of war.


In the end, The Iliad is a must read, not because it’s the best book ever, but because it’s a cornerstone of literature. It has provided the basis and inspiration for countless war stories in the centuries since its creation. It’s one of the oldest and most well-known stories in existence and that’s not something anyone should miss. But I would recommend The Odyssey over The Iliad if you’re only going to read one, even though that story comes after this one in chronological order.

I read this as part of A Literary Odyssey’s read-along.


Jillian said...

I always say the same thing you do about the Iliad, as well as with Ulysess. I always recommend it to readers in general, simply because it is a "cornerstore of literature." Not necessarily because it was awesome or anything. I actually thought they were too boring for my liking, but one can't help but appreciate a book that has managed to last through time.

Mumsy said...

But it's so tragic! The fate of the Trojans is so's iconic. Also, have you read THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY? Oh, and after reading the Iliad, you should absolutely read (or re-read) Mary Renault's THE PERSIAN BOY.

Shelley said...

I felt the same way about the absence of the Trojan Horse! I remember the gore very well, maybe because I would read those parts out loud to whoever was near me at the time.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jillian - Exactly, even though parts of it were slow, it was amazing to read a story that was so incredibly old.

Mumsy - I haven't read either of those, but I'll add them to my TBR!

Shelley - I feel like there should be a warning on the book DOES NOT CONTAIN TROJAN HORSE.

Kristi said...

I totally bailed on the readalong with Allie. I'm still on book two. I'll get around to finishing it eventually. The macho posturing is getting a bit on my nerves already.

I'm disappointed to hear that there is no Trojan Horse. What? How could that be? I'm glad that I know now so I won't keep looking for it while I read.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kristi - If I hadn't been doing the read-along I might have stopped to.

Jenny said...

I second the recommendation of The Lost Books of the Odyssey! It's wonderful! It's rife with subtext!

I do prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad, in a way, but I think a lot of that is because I'm #teamtrojans, and I am sad to read the Iliad where they get so tragically defeated. The Aeneid is very wonderful to me too, even though it's unfinished, because it's #teamtrojans too. Woooo!

Enbrethiliel said...


The last time I read the Iliad from cover to cover (E.V. Rieu's translation) was about four years ago, and there's one bit of the reading experience I will always remember.

I was in the middle of one of the big battle scenes when I decided to put the book down for a bit. The writing hadn't engrossed me, but neither had it left me bored. I remember being worried about my students having to slog through it, but I felt all right. And then, for no reason at all, I picked up another book--some modern novel I can't even remember--and found myself repelled by what seemed to be its shallowness. That had never happened to me before. The modern novel wasn't even a "bad" book or anything. And then I looked over my personal library and was saddened to see much of that shallowness reflected in the titles. =(

The effect was as if I had spent a week eating hearty, healthy, but simple meals prepared from the freshest ingredients, and then suddenly had to eat some greasy fast food. It wouldn't matter that I'd had fast food before and liked it. The contrast was intense. I had to come down from a high; the Iliad is that sublime.

BookQuoter said...

I think this post and Enbethriliel's comments have convinced me to read this book:)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Enbrethiliel - I love your comments. That's the perfect way to explain why the book is worth reading. The battles were not my cup of tea, but there's such wonderful depth to the book.

BookQuoter - Enbrethiliel's comments make me want to weed out some books from my own library!

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, BookQuoter and Melissa! =)

After all this time, I still can't get over how effective the Iliad was in making me feel that way, without my even knowing what was happening. Remember that I wasn't even thinking, "This is the greatest book in the world!" or anything remotely like it. I knew the book was important and I respected it . . . but I was reading it because I had to and knew from experience that "required reading" rarely yields spectacular results.

So I'm really still amazed.

And full disclosure: I ultimately didn't weed out any books from my library . . . but I think I am much more fastidious about my reading these days. I mean, new books need to be worthy to share a bookcase with the Iliad and all! ;-)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Enbrethiliel - That really is wonderful. I've found myself really refining what I read in the past couple years as well. I've learned what I like and don't like and that's helped a lot. I also don't want to waste as much time reading "fluff" books when there are so many good books I haen't gotten to yet!

Christopher said...

The Iliad is arguably one of my most favorite books (poems) of all time. I'm a bit of a collector too. I have copies of just about all of the major translations of The Iliad, with the Fagles translation probably being my favorite currently--although the renowned poet, Stephen Mitchell, has a new translation being released in mid-October that I am eagerly waiting for.

I view The Iliad as one of the great anti-war statements/testaments of all time too. It really is an incredibly powerful indictment of Greek hegemony, and a beautiful elegy for Ilium (Troy) and its peoples. I also like to remember that The Iliad is really of the bardic, or oral, tradition, and was not actually transcribed until much, much later. So, in other words, for many, many generations there were itinerant poets/bards who wandered around the Mediterranean region telling portions of this great tale around village bonfires at night. Kind of like how we sit around and watch dramas on the television these days. Very cool stuff.

I loved your review, Melissa, and urge you to pick up and revisit periodically. I would also highly recommend some of the great ancient Greek dramas and tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These stories are timeless, and drip with pathos, power, and emotion. Happy reading! Cheers! Chris

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Chris - Thank you for your wonderful comments! I love hearing people talk about books they are passionate about, it always gives me a new appreciation for the work. I will have to re-read this one at different points in life and I definitely want to read more Greek works.