Friday, 18 July 2014

'The Iliad' by Homer (c. 750BC)

Synopsis: The Iliad takes place towards the end of the Trojan War. Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, has a daughter called Chryseis who has been enslaved by the Achaeans. He goes to the Achaean camp in order to plead for her return but she's been given over to the Achaean commander, Agamemnon, and he's refusing to give her up. In despair, Chryses prays to Apollo for help and Apollo responds by inflicting a devastating plague upon the Achaeans. Achilles, a demigod and the leader of one of the largest contingents of the army, calls for a meeting. It's decided that Chryseis must be returned to her father. Now under pressure, Agamemnon agrees but insists that he must now take Achilles' slave girl Briseis as compensation. Achilles flies into a rage and withdraws all support for the army. He then asks his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to intercede with Zeus so that the Achaeans will experience terrible losses and will then realise how much they need him. Zeus agrees and the Trojans, led by Prince Hector, gain substantial victories. Agamemnon sends ambassadors out to Achilles but Achilles refuses to return to the army. This continues until Achilles' best friend Patroclus begs to be allowed to fight in Achilles' place. Achilles agrees and Patroclus is killed in battle by Hector. This finally prompts Achilles to return. He kills Hector and desecrates his body. Hector's father, the elderly Trojan King Priam, must then plead with Achilles for the return of his son's body.

This is going to be an unusual review. I read The Iliad but I wasn't able to finish it. To put that into perspective, the last time I abandoned a book was over six years ago. The Iliad is one of the oldest and most important texts in European literature and yet I hated it. That might make me an uncultured swine but it's the truth! And you know what else? I even prefer the movie Troy to The Iliad. I'm not saying that Troy is a great film or even a very good film but I can honestly say that I found it more entertaining than this poem. At least it's got some entertaining fight scenes and some eye candy in the form of Eric Bana and Sean Bean!

Certain reviews that I've read have described The Iliad as "fast-paced". I find that mystifying. "Fast-paced" certainly isn't the adjective that comes to mind when I think of The Iliad! I'd call it slow-paced and tedious! It's seriously one of the most boring books that I've ever read. I know that might sound strange since this is a story that features action, adventure, war, and the meddling of various gods and goddesses but it really was. The story is incredibly repetitive. The Iliad is a big book and roughly 2/3 of it consists of mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of characters getting killed off. There are long, long sections where it's just "This Person, son of This Person, shoved a spear through the chest of This Person, son of This Person, and stole his armour." And don't even get me started on the list of the ships and crew members in Book II! It goes on for pages and pages! I'm guessing that all of this information would have been more meaningful and significant to an Ancient Greek audience but as a reader from the 21st century I was bored to tears. And the characters! We learn absolutely nothing about Chryseis and Briseis and they're only in the story to serve as plot-points. Agamemnon, Paris and Helen are all aggravating. The various gods and goddesses are all aggravating. Achilles is despicable. He throws a massive hissy fit because of Agamemnon taking his sex slave away (What?! How dare Agamemnon rape the woman that I'm raping!) and then cries and whines about it to his mother. Then he sits in a tent and does some more whining and sulking whilst his comrades all die just so he can prove a point. His treatment of Hector - who is by far the coolest character in the book - is horrendous. And yet almost everyone in the book keeps going on about how awesome he is!

The only character in this story that I genuinely liked and felt an emotional connection to was Hector. He just seemed like a really loving husband and father. The scene where he says goodbye to his wife and then lifts his infant son up to the gods, praying that the boy will be a better man then he ever was, is genuinely sad and beautiful. It was easily my favourite part of the whole poem. Urgh, why did Hector have to die instead of horrible Achilles?! The point where I had to give up on this book was the part where Achilles tried to get a pack of dogs to eat Hector's face. By that point I decided that I simply couldn't take any more of this story even though I was actually quite close to the end.

I wanted to read The Iliad because I'm trying to incorporate more poetry into my reading and because I wanted to expand my knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology. But now I wish I hadn't bothered. I might still read Homer's The Odyssey because I hear it's a lot more accessible than this book but I'm going to give myself a nice long break before I do.

Rating: No Stars. I couldn't finish it. Oh alright, 0.5/5. Because of Hector.


Mònica said...

Ugh, second it! The only reason I could finish this book is because I had to for school. But dang, just because it's an 'important' book doesn't mean I have to like it.

samara said...

I got so excited when I saw you were reviewing this book because I minored in Classical Studies at University. I've read the book twice and have such a deep respect for it. But... haha, I see we don't quite see it the same.

I think your frustrations are TOTALLY valid. It is an incredibly tedious book. A significant part of Epic Poetry in many cultures are those dreadful lists [Book II of the Iliad, most of Chronicles... etc.] I guiltily admit that I totally skimmed Book II my second time through.

Also, yes, the females in this book are treated as property again and again. Agamemnon stealing Achilles's "property" is meant to mirror the inciting action of the whole war - Paris stealing Menelaus's "property." I think the one exception is how Hector treats Andromache.

And absolutely, Achilles is a jerk. But I think the author is very self-aware of him being a jerk, as he says in the invocation "Sing goddess, the anger of Peleus's son Achilles and *of it's devastation which reaped thousandfold upon the Acheans.*" So Homer is very much acknowledging, this hero is a jerk (quite a few of them are, actually), but his actions have incredible consequences - both on Olympus and on earth. While Achilles is a dreadfully horrible person, I do love the choice he is faced with in mythology, and how Homer describes it in his version of the story: the choice to live a full, long life or to have Kleos - undying glory. And due to the death of his lover-friend Patroclus, he chooses Kleos.

I think the marvelous thing about the Iliad is that the conquering Greeks were able to portray the Trojans with such compassion, as fully fleshed-out characters. Who else in all of history has so painstakingly honored their former enemies like that? Homer writes Hector with so much care and the biggest reason to finish the book is the dignity he gives Hector. The ending is just... beautiful!

One last point about the "Great Books" - I've found there are many that I can appreciate, but not actually enjoy [Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, etc...]. So I think it's totally fair acknowledge that a book may be significant for XYZ, but to also challenge its entertainment factor.

Wow... didn't plan to write this much (or to go into the mini-Iliad lesson). Haha - have a happy rest of your Friday and a Great Weekend :)

Anonymous said...

I suggest borrowing The Odyssey rather than buying it as I suspect it will not be to your taste. In fact, just watch a film/TV version. I LOVE Greek mythology but I found it incredibly hard going and dull. I can imagine that if I were an ancient Greek and I heard it told in the traditional way by a wandering poet it would be awesome though.
Steer well clear of The Aeneid too! Even worse! The last HALF is 1 battle, just a description of people being brutally killed and yet still manages to be as boring as an episode of Countdown. In both books the "heroes" treat their lady folk awfully ("thanks for saving my life Dido but now I'm bored, see you later. Actually nah, you just stay here and die"). I try to be understanding of cultural/attitude changes over time but it still makes me really mad!