The Iliad: Introduction, Books 1 and 2

July 17, 2010

Having read The Iliad once in high school, I now happily return to it to solidify in my mind its themes and characters as I prepare for the subject test in literature. I vividly remember resonating with the work while in high school for what I perceived to be the passionate relationship between Achilles and his friend Patroclus, the only person for whom Achilles bears sufficient love to convince him to reenter the Trojan War after being gravely offended. Feeling a similarity with Achilles and his love for a man, I loved The Iliad once and now return to its pages with curiosity and wide eyes.

The Iliad and The Odyssey were both ostensibly written by a poet named Homer, a Greek who lived sometime in the late eighth or early seventh century BCE. Like Shakespeare, hardly any biographical details remain about the life of Homer, and scholars have conjectured both that he was literate and did not merely perform his lengthy epic poems orally but also composed written versions of them, and that he was blind, as Milton alludes to when he places himself in the genealogy of blind, albeit brilliant, epic poets in his Paradise Lost. Many cities are claimed as Homer’s birthplace, and Homer is even considered by some to be a conglomerate of various Greek bards, although the unity of style and theme among The Iliad and The Odyssey argues for composition by a single hand.

Both of Homer’s epics are composed in dactylic hexameter, a rhyme scheme that exacted various maneuvers from the language of which it was comprised. One such trope that Homer employs frequently is his use of an epithet, now termed a Homeric epithet, to describe a character or noun generally. Thus, we have the “wine-red sea” and “wide-ruling Agamemnon,” epithets that in the original Greek would have lent themselves to forming  lines of dactylic hexameter. Other memorable things about the form of the Homeric epics include the epic invocation or epic question, in which the bard appeals to the Muses to aid him in his duties as a raconteur. Epic catalogs occur when Homer describes at length the names and background stories of certain members of both armies, for example, a quintessential instance occurring at the end of Book 2. Epic similes are extensive, voluble comparisons using the words “like” or “as.” And lastly, both of Homer’s poems begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, and portray the prior events of the plot to the reader through flashback narrative scenes.

Book 1 of The Iliad sets the scene for the remainder of the epic. The plot is essentially one of petty revenge wrought by the proud warrior Achilles against the equally haughty Agamemnon. After the Achaeans defeat a city and loot its wealth, Agamemnon receives Chryseis, a beautiful woman, as a prize. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, however, is not content to see his daughter a slave to a foreign army. He begs for her return, is spurned by Agamemnon, and being an oracular priest thus appeals to Apollo to plague the Argives as chastisement for their withholding, an act that Apollo executes. Agamemnon eventually returns Chryseis under the condition that he can possess Briseis, the female war prize of Achilles, Agamemnon’s warrior of most prowess. Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles, precipitating Achilles’s anger and withdrawal from the war. Deeply wounded in his pride by Agamemnon, Achilles enjoins his mother, a goddess named Thetis, to convince Zeus to massacre the Argives as a humiliation tactic and a didactic means of chastening Agamemnon specifically. Zeus agrees to the machination, and Book 1 ends.

Book 2 begins with the unfolding of Zeus’s plot. Exercising his guile, Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon in which he falsely informs the Achaean leader that an abrupt attack, undertaken at that very instant, would enormously debilitate the Trojan army. Trusting the content of the dream, Agamemnon awakes and puts his warriors to an audacity test, telling them falsely that they may return home after the nine years of fighting that they have already endured. Much to Agamemnon’s shame, the warriors happily comply, content to have lost the war and to return home empty-handed. Hera, ever a defender of the Argives, sends Athena to rally the morale of the troops, lest they abandon the war at Agamemnon’s false behest. Newly encouraged by her divine words, the troops prepare for battle and organize themselves by tribe, all of which are described in great nominal detail. The Trojans, also receiving divine warning of the impending battle, line themselves up for fighting as well and are described, and thus ends Book 2.

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