Letter: Savagery and morality in the 'Iliad'

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The Independent Online
Sir: Robert Winder's review of the Penguin Classics audio tape of the Iliad ('Greeks, Trojans and abridgement too far', 10 December) is right about its quality, and the strength of Derek Jacobi's reading. But he is surely wrong in his own account of the great poem.

For him the Iliad is 'a strange and savage epic', with no 'moral reflex', so that 'by all modern standards Achilles's rage is a petty business'. The battle scenes are certainly savage, but they are not strange. Through their objectivity they achieve pathos: the same powerful aesthetic that we find in modern times in the First World War monumental memorials, and in the Vietnam Wall in Washington.

The Iliad is indeed not a moralistic poem. Homer knows how the 'values of glory and honour' are problematic: Mr Winder should have listened harder to what Achilles says in the scene with the Embassy, to which he refers.

But it is a profoundly moral poem. This is why Mr Winder is wrong to see the 'mighty climax' as Achilles's reappearance on the battlefield. The climax surely comes at the end of the poem, when Achilles overcomes his anger, is reconciled with Priam, and restores Hector's body to his father - Achilles thus being restored himself to full humanity. So far from the wrath of Achilles being a 'petty business', the moral greatness - and universal significance - of the Iliad lies in this story, of a (representative) man's achievement of humanity amid the horrors of war.

There is a historicist tradition of criticism which insists, with Robert Winder, on the 'otherness' of the Iliad. But if Homer is so 'other', why has he been regarded as so great a poet - The Poet - in each of 80 generations?

Yours faithfully,

ROBERT JACKSON

MP for Wantage (Con)

House of Commons

London, SW1

(Photograph omitted)

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