My Journey through 100 Books: The Iliad
Updated: May 14, 2021
"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Acheans." That is a strong opening from one of the greatest works in Western literature, the epic Greek poem The Iliad by the Greek poet Homer. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the poem opens with the Greek armies camped on the beach near the besieged city of Troy. A decade of war has taken its toll on both sides of the conflict, but The Iliad is not intended to be a full accounting of the war. In fact, some of the most famous elements of the Trojan War such as the Trojan Horse or the death of Achilles do not even occur in the poem. Rather, this is the story of Achilles and his unyielding pride. As the opening lines indicate, this great character flaw in one man caused tremendous grief for not only his fellow Greeks but for Achilles himself. Slighted by the Greek king Agamemnon, Achilles withdraws from the ongoing skirmishes and calls upon the gods to create havoc among his own allied forces until they come crawling back to him to recognize his greatness. This being a mythic story in which the gods are very active (and very human in their vanity and squabbling), the plan works and the Trojan forces led by the heroic Hector very nearly destroy the Greek encampment on the shore along with their ships. Along the way, Achilles' closest friend Petroclus takes up Achilles' armor in order to rally the Greek forces but he is slain by Hector. Enraged at the death of his friend (and lacking any sense of personal responsibility for exposing Petroclus to danger without standing beside him), Achilles emerges once more to face the Trojans and defeats Hector in personal combat. The victory is tainted, however, by Achilles' dishonorable treatment of Hector's body and refusal to allow Hector's family permission to bury their dead hero. In the end, Achilles is faced with King Priam of Troy, Hector's father, who has come in disguise and at great personal risk into the Greek camp to pay a ransom for the body of his son. Achilles, in a touchingly human moment, not only accepts but treats Priam as a guest in his tent, the bond of their common humanity and sense of loss connecting these two enemies if only for a moment. While Achilles's fate is sealed, by releasing his pride and rage, he is able to finally achieve restful sleep and gain a sense of peace.
Even from this early point in Western literature, we see sophisticated storytelling devices that would be emulated even to the modern era. This is no work of jingoistic propaganda, and Achilles is hardly a heroic character (in the modern understanding of the term). The Greeks were masters of developing characters with depth and examining whether personal moral failings or acts of fate (characterized as the will of the gods) are the deciding factor in tragic events. Pride as a source of personal pain and community grief is a topic that will come up a few times in this literary journey, and there is no clearer example than that of Achilles. Presented with a prophecy that he can either leave the fields of Troy and survive to an old age or die in his youth while achieving everlasting glory, Achilles choses his own glorification and brings about his own ruin. So were the loss of so many Greek lives the fault of divine intervention or Achilles' personal failings? Homer avoids giving us an easy answer but suggests that our personal sins are magnified beyond our control by the deeper realities of the world (as personified by the gods). Achilles wanted to see Agamemnon suffer, not Petroclus. But one does not dictate the course of the universe, and indulging in one's own moral failings will cause suffering that goes far beyond one's intentions.
I highly encourage you to read this poem. Even with some of the archaic language in certain translations, the story moves at a brisk pace. As we will see in upcoming literary works, authors ranging from the medieval period to the present day commonly make reference either obliquely or directly to the foundations laid by Homer and other figures of the classical period. That is why I decided to start this series by talking about The Iliad, and I hope that my own meager efforts in this regard have inspired you to take a look for yourself. The Internet Classics Archive has the Samuel Butler translation available to read online for free, though I will warn that this translation uses the Roman names for the gods (Jove for Zeus, for example) so I would recommend making some kind of cheat sheet so you keep proper track of which god is which as later references to this story in other literature will almost certainly refer to the Greek naming convention. Otherwise, I encourage you to read and let me know what you think. Thank you to everyone for reading and I'm looking forward to continuing this journey with you all.