All you need to know about the books you meant to read; THE ILIAD by Homer

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Plot:The Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, Menelaus's wife. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon fought the Trojans for her return, helped by a lot of other Greek royals and their armies. The poem covers a few days' fighting in the tenth year of the struggle. Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over a girl called Briseis. Achilles sulks and pleads to his goddess-mother Thetis to scupper the Greek campaign.

The Greeks suffer heavy losses. Achilles kills the Trojan prince Hector and drags the corpse around the city walls.

In disguise, Hector's father Priam comes to reclaim the body. As Achilles sees the old man, he is overcome by sadness, gives up the body, and learns renunciation.

Theme: Mortals suffer at the hands of gods who are capricious and frightening by turns. Both Greeks and Trojans are locked into their doom, compelled by heroic code to commit slaughter over a worthless bimbo. The gods take an interfering interest, but are apt to collapse into complacency and nectar.

Style: Homer's hexameters are grand and swift-moving. "The course of his verses resembles that of the army he describes, `They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it' " (Pope).

Chief strengths: Homer's impartial humanity glows in every line. Although the Trojans are sometimes portrayed as showy, the Trojan suffering matches that of the Greeks. No other poem expresses with such limpid intelligence both the heroism and waste of warfare.

Chief weaknesses: Homeric studies became bogged down in speculations about the nature and purpose of oral poetry. There is now a return to looking at the poem as a literary artefact rather than as an historical curiosity.

Responsible for: Most of Western Culture: not only literature as practised by Virgil, Dante, Milton, etc, but also history as viewed by Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus and Gibbon.