Sunday, June 06, 2010

Measured in Millihelens

The Iliad has two heroes: one nominal (Achilles) and one subversive (Hector). Achilles has to be the hero because Homer's audience was Greek and Achilles is Greek (Achaean), whereas Hector the Trojan prince was the enemy to the Greeks in the Trojan war. Achilles is certainly a hero - but he sulks in his tent and fights in blind anger. In Homer's lifetime there were no Trojans left to cheer on Hector. Just to solidify our preference for Hector over Achilles, Achilles is most unheroic in his treatment of Hector's dead body after he kills him - and Achilles' blind anger and revenge-killing of Hector is not very heroic, either.

So instead of black and white, at the center of the Illiad is an odd take on us-and-them: we are great but flawed. The unattainable standard of heroism is embodied in the other. More: we destroyed the ideal hero (Hector). The nominal hero, Achilles, lives on - an interesting ploy of Homer's, as Achilles lives only because Homer stopped the tale shortly before Achilles' death. (In other versions of the story he dies during the sacking of Troy.)

On a macro level the Iliad is also subversive. While it is a book that celebrates a great Greek victory, the prominence and glorification of Hector implies that the Greeks were wrong in fighting the war. There is great sadness in the destruction of Hector and his civilization, and the Greeks come off as brutes.

There is a humanism in the Iliad that you seldom see in historical fiction. No man dies anonymously. If a man dies in the Iliad, the means of his death is described, as is the name of his father and something of his history. This makes it a bit bloody, for sure (some might say there are endless descriptions of ghastly fatal wounds), but it is also very respectful of life.

Achilles doesn't refuse to fight because of any moral qualms; he's just mad that Agamemnon has taken his slave-girl Briseis away. Achilles didn't want any part of this expedition in the first place, but was forced to go. Hector is forced to defend his city, but wants only a peaceful life with his wife and young son. Despite the bloodiness of the story, the Iliad is profoundly anti-war.

All this makes sense when you think that Homer (or a collection of writers we call Homer) was writing at the end of the dark ages and is describing the cause of the dark ages (as I've argued before). You could see the central premise of the Iliad as: The heroic deeds of our (Greek) heroes resulted in hundreds of years when civilization died.

Okay, if you got this far, here's a little Illiad joke to reward you:

Q: What's a millihelen?
A: The amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship.



Ferd said...

But when aboriginals honour the animal they killed [make a hero of it] this doesn't mean they regard it as having been the wrong hunt [this, apropos your suggestion that the treatment of Hector suggests Homer (?) thought it had been the wrong war].

Yappa said...

Hi Ferd,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I have been trying on your idea when thinking about the Iliad. I like the idea of Homer recognizing the defeated enemy as a worthy hero and I think that's a good way to describe it, but I think it's a little different in the Iliad in that the protagonists are bad guys in the Iliad - especially Agammemnon (who leads the forces), but also Achilles.

But most of my musing about the Iliad these days has to do with my developing idea that it's all about how and why the dark ages happened. It's a bit more subtle than that because Homer doesn't talk about the dark ages, and probably didn't think of them as such.

I should admit that I have no classical scholarship whatsoever, and while I've read a lot about the time my reading has mostly been primary sources or history, rather than any sort of literary criticism. I love the Iliad and read it frequently, and enjoy all other writing that deals with the story, whether it's Aeschylus or Shakespeare or Yeats or Sartre.