Thursday, June 2, 2011Posted by Melissa (Avid Reader)
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.