Home > Books and a Dream > Iliad and Odyssey thoughts

Iliad and Odyssey thoughts

So I finished both the Iliad and the Odyssey and I figured I’d write up a mini-review, mostly about the Iliad.  A couple of points that struck me.  A couple of spoilers here:

1.  The Gods kill the development of characters.  There are only really 3 1/2 proper “turning points” in the Iliad; i.e, moments when a character has a change of heart- a reversal- due to circumstances in the world.  First, is Achilles’ decision to sit out the war after Agamemnon steals Briseis.  The second comes when Helen moans that she’d rather she died before leaving Menelaus.  That’s the half since, you know, she regrets it, but ultimately stays.  The third comes when Agamemnon regrets his decision and sends an embassy to woo Achilles.  The fourth (3 and 1/2)…can you guess it?  Well, when Achilles suffers a loss and decides to enter the fray for revenge.  That’s it.  The rest of “changes”, major and minor, are the result of gods randomly messing with the characters.

And so you end up with countless characters changing their minds with nothing leading up to it.  I thought this was fascinating, how a lack of plot and character development could be plugged, pretty effectively, by the intervention of the gods. This wasn’t what Homer was getting at, obviously.  It’s an epic from oral tradition so this is almost certainly how the Greeks  thought of narrative.  But, you can sort of see how real plot could come out of this.  Fun stuff.

2.  The Greeks were strange and ridiculously violent but at times stunningly noble.  That fight over Patrocholus’ corpse?  I’ll never get over it.  There’s a lot of that in the Iliad, interspersed with moments of almost shocking callousness.  Even though I feel like I don’t know many of the characters after reading these two epics, I do feel like I know the ancient Greeks.  And they’re worth knowing.

3.  Read these books.

Update:  I wasn’t going to wade into this because A.)  I’m reading translations and don’t know a lick of Greek, B.)  I’ve read each book exactly once…but, I’ve decided to throw it out there anyway and quite probably embarrass myself.  I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that these epics were composed by the same person.  They just feel different to me, and I’m not just talking about in subject matter.  Two examples:  gods and death.  They don’t seem to handle the topics in the same way.  The Odyssey seems more…flippant about both.  Think of that famous scene with the Cyclops, where he bashes the brains out of, like 8 of Odyseuss’s men and eats them.  They’re upset about it, but it takes up comparatively little text.  My translation only makes one reference to it, at the end of the book,

So we moved out, sad in the vast offing,

having our precious lives, but not our friends.

This is nice, and powerful, but brief.  Almost every semi-serious death in the Iliad gets an equivalent bemoaning and the really serious one’s are given pages and pages.  Granted, even in the Iliad, only the Hector’s and Patrochulus’s of the world get 12 day dirges, but still.  Along with this, the Odyssey seems to have a looser sense of mortality for its heroes  Odysseus must be, if we go by the chronology, like 50 at the youngest during the Odyssey.  Penelope couldn’t be a whole lot younger.  But, they’re constantly being given back their youth by Athena.  In the Iliad heroes are strengthened by the gods, but there’s a definite sense, through the text, that death lies at the end for all of them; the strengthening is only temporary.  Think of that lovely Embassy to Achilles chapter, which seems out of place at the time, but brilliant later.  Achilles, all Ecclesiastes like, wonders, “what’s the point of winning all these honors when we all die?”.

There’s also a slight difference in the way the interactions with the gods play out.  In, like 80% of the interactions with the gods in the Iliad, the characters are changed from afar.  The heroes pray and are aided, but usually not too personally.  In fact, their are only a handful of cases in the Iliad where the gods intervene in a way that couldn’t be explained by some other plot device.  One, the gods will occasionally hurl some fighter away from death, and cover another fighter’s eyes.  But, even that’s not terribly personal since its just done, and then the fighters move on.  You also have a very few direct conversations with the gods.  The one Achilles has about Hector’s body comes to mind.

In contrast, even though the gods are less involved in the Odyssey, when they are involved it’s more frequently personal.  Odysseus lives on an two different islands with goddesses for years.  Virtually every character talks to gods and recognizes that they’re talking to gods. Maybe I’m making too much of the differences, but the Iliad feels mostly like an attempt to explain realish events through impersonal interventions by the gods, while the Odyssey feels like a fantasy where the gods are right at everyone’s fingertips.

Anyway, just my thoughts.  I’m probably totally wrong and would realize it on a second reading (fat chance of that).

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