Few people have reached such heights of greatness as to be remembered by their first name alone—people like Elvis, Moses, Cleopatra and Santa. So I figured there must be something remarkable about the ancient Greek poet known through the ages simply as Homer. I was right.
Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells of the warriors and battles that turned the tide of the Trojan War. Greek King Agamemnon, having led a vast fleet to the city of Troy to recover his brother’s stolen wife, now finds himself in dire straits. The Trojans, protected by their city’s seemingly insurmountable walls, have held out through a near decade-long siege. Agamemnon’s army long for home and family, while his greatest warrior, Achilles, refuses to fight after being dishonoured by him. (To appreciate how this buoys the Trojans, imagine having to play basketball against a team that has Michael Jordan, and then finding out that Jordan is going to sit out the first three quarters on the bench.) The gods, for a time, grant favour to Trojan prince Hector, and he wreaks furious carnage on the Greeks, driving them back to the shore. If not for the might of heroes such as Ajax and Odysseus, the Greeks would be forced to flee in their ships. Chief god Zeus, however, has ultimately determined a Greek victory, and when Hector slays Patroclus, beloved friend of Achilles, the legendary warrior comes out of his mini-retirement. He routs the Trojan forces, sending survivors on a speedy retreat behind the city walls. With Hector cut off before he can reach safety, he must fight Achilles one-on-one. Even Hector is no match for the son of a goddess. I don’t mind giving these spoilers because the book itself, through the prophecies of the gods, announces all the major events before they happen. The story does not go on to tell the end of the war, and so deprives the reader of a couple of famous Greek legends. This abrupt ending is nonetheless satisfying.
Humanity’s simultaneous nobility and stupidity shines in the kings and leaders of the armies. They stand for honour and wisdom, yet are also willing to risk their necks for trivial grudges. Some things are worth dying for, but surely not everything. This flawed glory is echoed in the behaviour of the gods—those mighty beings come off as petty, squabbling brats. It’s not a good advertisement for polytheism.
The Iliad is one big fight scene, so be ready for that. A typical chapter starts out with fighting, then more fighting, then some kings discuss battle strategy, and then they fight again, and then there’s a report of who killed who (detailing every crushed skull, hacked limb and disembowelment), and then it’s back to the fighting.
I loved reading the heroes’ stories in this book. And they all have such cool names—Achilles, Ajax, Diomedes, Odysseus. It got me wondering if they really were cool names, or just regular names in ancient Greece. What sounded so awe-inspiring to me might have sounded to the average Greek something like this: Then Steve took up his spear and slew brave Zack, brother of Tim and son of mighty Dennis. It loses a little something.
The Iliad is an absorbing tale of glory, tragedy and guys with rad names. And how often do you find a novel that doubles as a crash course in Greek mythology? 8/10
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