Homer’s Iliad 1 – Heroes and Humans

I haven’t read Robert Fagles’ translation of the Iliad for years. I’d forgotten how gripping it is – how fast the lines move, what a sense of violent action and emotion it gives, how effortlessly it sweeps you through great blocks of story. There really is very little like it for giving you a sense of the horror and pathos of war.

In the past I’ve always read it with a strong sense of sympathy for the Trojans. Most people probably do. After all, they’re fighting not only for their own lives but for their families and the survival of their city. They’re fighting out of necessity in a way the Achaeans aren’t, and two of the most memorable books are Book 6, in which Hector tells Andromache he has to go back to the fight although he knows it’s in vain and Book 24 where Priam ransoms Hector’s body from Achilles.  It’s always seemed an amazing achievement of Homer’s, or of the oral tradition we call “Homer”, to be so sympathetic to the enemy. Now I think I understand why the poem’s deepest humanity appears in its treatment of the Trojans.

Essentially, they have far more inner life than the Achaeans. Next to them, the Greek heroes are as flat as boards, however brilliantly they’re painted – basically, I think, because they can only be presented in positive and glamorous terms. Compare Nestor and Priam. Nestor sees himself as a shadow of his former self – a “self” he recalls in wholly external terms by boasting his days of supreme fighting and athletic prowess. But he’s a fighter still, respected and admired by the Achaean kings and a leader in their councils. The real pathos and anguish of age is presented in Priam’s helplessness, his agonies of bereavement, his humiliating terrors and his knowledge that his own death will be made ridiculous by the ugliness of his aged body. Achilles several times laments his own old and soon to be sonless father’s vulnerability, but that’s a remote and hypothetical pain, a pale shadow of Priam’s agony. Again, there’s a gesture towards giving Patroclus a rounded nature, by the way that after his death he’s praised for his gentleness, but this gentleness remains completely notional and detached from the Patroclus  we see in action, the incredibly violent and merciless killing machine. In contrast to this we’re actually shown Hector’s gentleness and humour with Andromache and Astyanax as well as his ruthlessness in battle; we see his horrified realization that his over confidence has destroyed the Trojan army; and finally we see him feeling and fighting fear in his final confrontation with Achilles, in that wonderfully dramatic inner debate before he breaks and runs. Is there anything truly dramatic in this way in the presentation of the Greeks? Achilles’ rage at Agamemnon first and at Hector and the Trojans after the killing of Patroclus is awesome but it’s too elemental and absolute to seem fully human.

My impression is that constraints of tradition prevented Homer or the Homeric poets from presenting the Greek heroes in other than a heroic light. Hence their glittering flatness. He (or they) could approach the Trojans with much more imaginative freedom, and could present them with far more realism, humanity, inwardness and sympathy for their acknowledged frailties. And a paradox follows from this. Greeks living violent, insecure lives haunted by fear must have found those elements of their lives far more poignantly and intensely expressed throughthe Trojans’ fears for their future and their lamentations for past suffering than through the more limited suffering of the Achaeans. However much Greek audiences wanted to identify with the Achaean heroes, in some ways they must have identified more intensely and troublingly with the Trojans. After all, it’s the fate of Troy and the Trojan laments that seem to chime with the choruses of the great classical tragedies.

Leave a Reply