Someone made a comment on my last post on the Iliad that she was intimidated to read this work, and reading back over my post, I can see that I didn’t say all I meant to. My observations are a bit scattered, and I didn’t talk enough about what an absorbing experience it was to read this book. Part of that is that it took me some time to establish myself with the characters. As in a Russian novel, everyone seems to have two names: Agamemnon is also Atrides (and worse, Menelaus is also Atrides); the Achaeans are also the Argives. This has to do with meter: the character is called what fits best in the line. I’m wildly impressed by Homer’s poetic skills, and by Robert Fagles’s ability to translate it, but it did take me a while to understand who everyone was. I also went into this work a little bit resistant, as I mentioned.
But once I hit my stride, I hardly wanted to put it down. (The Tide of Battle Turns!) In Book 9, Agamemnon, pressed hard by the Trojans, sends an embassy to Achilles, who is refusing to fight. He offers rich prizes, gold, horses, cities, women —
All this —
I would extend to him if he will end his anger.
Let him submit to me! Only the god of death
is so relentless. Death submits to no one —
So mortals hate him most of all the gods.
Let him bow down to me! I am the greater king,
I am the elder-born, I claim — the greater man.
The greatest men in Agamemnon’s camp go to Achilles: Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus, the camp’s best tactician. And it is Odysseus who delivers the message, another use of repetition. He remembers every bit of Agamemnon’s offer, every bar of gold, every description of the women. But he omits the last part: “tactful royal Odysseus” does not include the command, “Let him submit to me!” He knows that, given Achilles’s already-wounded honor, his mission would inevitably fail if he delivered Agamemnon’s words verbatim. This was the first real assurance I had that a Greek audience would see Agamemnon at least somewhat as I did: as a high-handed leader, brave, perhaps, but unconcerned for the honor of his men. (A jerk, in other words.)
In Book 10, I noticed the descriptions of armor. When Agamemnon and Menelaus can’t sleep at night, fretting about their armies, they arise and put on fur cloaks: “round him he swung the hide of a big tawny lion,/ swinging down to his heels,” or “First he covered his broad back with leopard skin.” Diomedes and Ajax, stealing into the enemy camp to steal their armor and horses, lying face down amid the corpses, breathing fast, their armor clinking. The description of Agamemnon’s breastplate, made of gold and steel with blue enamel, chased with the design of a serpent, takes up an entire page. I wondered what they would think of our armor, today. Functional, but so drab.
By Book 12, the battle scenes were starting to remind me of Valhalla (where the best idea the Norse could think of for the afterlife was to fight all day, pick up the pieces, feast all night, and start the fighting again.) War and War instead of War and Peace. But Homer was still using peacetime metaphors:
They held tight as a working widow holds the scales,
painstakingly grips the beam and lifts the weight
and the wool together, balancing both sides even,
struggling to win a grim subsistence for her children.
Homer reminds us that women and children still exist in this all- male environment, that these men have families and homes, that somewhere outside the noise and heat and splashing blood, a woman is spinning. [ETA: it just occurred to me that this metaphor would bring to mind the three fates, who were pictured as spinners, spinning out the thread of a man’s life, measuring it, and cutting it.] But the writing, by this time, is breathless. The Trojans have the Achaeans pressed back against their ships, and Homer’s audience is on the edge of their seats. Book 12 ends, “– Argives scattering back in terror,/ back by the hollow hulls, the uproar rising, no way out, no end –” What a cliffhanger!
In Book 14, there’s a break from the fighting to watch the gods manipulate each other. Hera, furious at seeing the Achaeans suffer (and not knowing Zeus’s long-term plans for their success), comes up with a plan: she will seduce Zeus and get him to take a nap so she can bolster the Achaean fighting without his knowledge. Her plan is ultimately foiled, but in the meantime, the fighting is prolonged, and Patroclus, Achilles’s best friend from childhood, begs Achilles for the chance to go and fight. Achilles agrees. And, of course, after a protracted battle, mighty Hector kills him.
All of this, in a way, results from the prayer of Thetis, Achilles’s mother, to glorify her son. Is this a meditation on the rights of the individual versus the community? What is the role of the gods? I admit I couldn’t completely figure it out. But at this point in the book, I was utterly wrapped up in the story. Hector’s spear through Patroclus’s chest felt like a blow. I knew it was doom, but I wanted to know anyway. Next up: doom!