Sing to Me, Muse

(a review of Homer’s Iliad)

Here, therefore, huge and mighty warrior though you be, here shall you die.

– Homer (The Iliad)

And with that formidable quote, I begin my review of The Iliad. I shall not exhaust you with a rehashing of the plot; that you can find on Wikipedia. Nor shall I be spending page upon page of analyzing the beautiful imagery, the implications of our understanding of fate and destiny, or all the other things that compel English majors to write page after page on the topic. Nor even shall I try to decipher whether it is a piece of history or a piece of legend.

Rather, I intend to talk about why I read it: it’s a really good story.

Sing to me, O goddess Muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, which brought countless ills upon the Acheans.

As I’d be reading it, I’d think to myself: “Ah ha! Now here we finally have a section of the story that doesn’t speak to modern life.” Perhaps it was a section the fear of being enslaved or butchered by conquerors, or about pride leading both sides to fight a war they need not have, or a graphic description of a spear going clear through someone’s head or neck.

And then, I’d have to sit and think. Are we really so far removed from that? Here we are, in a supposedly civilized world. We use remotely-operated drones to drop bombs on people, and think it naught but regrettable “collateral damage” when the brains and intestines of dozens of innocent victims are scattered about, killing them, all for the chance of killing one enemy. But we aren’t the only ones to blame; we live in a world in which killing the innocent is often the goal. People fly airplanes into skyscrapers, drop atomic weapons to flatten entire cities, and kill noncombatants in terrible numbers. And for what? A little power, some prestige, some riches, some vengeance, some wounded pride?

Slavery is not dead, either. We that can happily afford Internet access most likely abhor the thought. What, though, can we make of the fact that people are starving in this world in record numbers? That our actions may literally wipe some nations off the map? Are those people as free as we are? Do our actions repress them?

I suspect you can’t read the Iliad without being at least a bit introspective.

Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable

One of the great things about reading the Iliad is that I can learn about the culture of the ancient civilizations. Now, of course, one can read about this in history books and Wikipedia. But reading some dry sentence is different from reading a powerful story written by and for them. I know that the Iliad isn’t exactly a work of history, but it sure shows what made people tick: their religion, their morals, their behavior, and what they valued. I feel that I finally have some sort of insight into their society, and I am glad of it.

The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words.

There are gory battle scenes in the Iliad, but then there are also heart-wrenching tender moments: when Hector leaves his wife to go fight, for instance, and worries about the future of his child if he should die.

That’s not to say I found the entire story riveting. I would have liked it to be 1/3 shorter. The battle just dragged on and on. And yet, I will grant that there was some purpose served by that: it fatigued me as a reader, which perhaps gave me a small sense of the fatigue felt by the participants in the story.

Why, pray, must the Argives needs fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the host and bring them?

A question that was never answered, for either side: why are we so foolish that we must go to war? One tragedy among many is that neither side got smart about it until way too late, if ever they did at all.

I read The Illiad in the Butler translation, which overall I liked. Some of these quotes, however, use the Lattimore one. This completes the first item on my 2010 reading list.

I leave you with this powerful hope for the future, written almost three thousand years ago. Despite my criticisms above, we have made a lot of progress, haven’t we? What a beautiful ideal it is, and what a long ways we have yet to walk.

I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.

Sing to me, O goddess, the anger of Achilles, that one day his story may speak less to our hearts, for then will we have outgrown it.

8 thoughts on “Sing to Me, Muse

  1. I have to agree on the length. I recommend the Odyssey to you, which is gripping the whole way through and has always moved me far more than the Iliad. I’m a fan of Fitzgerald’s translation.

  2. The Iliad is indeed one of the greatest stories told.

    I do not hold out hope that mankind will relegate war to the trash heap of history. Conflict is a major part of life. I do hope mankind will find substitutes for war.

    The major lesson of The Iliad is that a tolerate society (like Troy) was unable to come to grips with the savagery at it’s gates and was destroyed by that savagery.

    I am impressed that this reviewer made the link to modern times. Thank you.

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