Writers Talk About Writing
Homer's All Too Human Heroes
Sing, goddess, sing the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus...
The Iliad's immortal opening lines have let countless generations of readers know just what to expect from this primal epic poem of Western literature—angry men at war—and they have not been and never will be disappointed. Homer serves up enough gore and guts in The Iliad to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader—here one of countless examples in the Rieu translation:
And now jagged stone hit Diores on the right leg near the ankle. The brutal rock shattered the sinews and bones, and Diores fell backward in the dust, gasping for breath. Peiros, the man who had hit him, ran up and struck him by the navel with his spear. His entrails poured out on the ground….
Yet recently reading The Iliad for the umpteenth time, I was struck as never before by the penetrating insight of Homer's exploration and depiction of the full range of human character and emotion.
Yes, The Iliad's pages are filled with words like "fury…angry…black passion…menace," yet after only six pages Homer describes Achilles as unsure of himself—"in his shaggy breast his heart was torn between two courses, whether…to kill Agamemnon or to control himself and check the angry impulse." Homeric heroes are famously stoic, but on page 47, Thersites "flinched and burst into tears" when Odysseus struck his back with staff.
Another twenty pages and we see vain Paris challenging any Greek to meet him in man-to-man combat; when Menelaus takes up the challenge, Paris' "heart failed him completely and he slunk back into the friendly ranks in terror for his life." Two pages more and Helen's nostalgia for her married life with Menelaus causes "tears to run down her cheeks."
And so it goes. I love the tender scene between Hector, his wife Andromache, and their infant son Astyanax is as much as I do any of the battle scenes:
…glorious Hector held out his arms to take his boy. But the child shrank back with a cry to the bosom of his nurse, alarmed by the bronze of his helmet and the horsehair plume he saw nodding grimly down at him. His father and his lady mother had to laugh. But noble Hector quickly took his helmet off, put the dazzling thing on the ground, and kissed his son, dandling him in his arms…
Soon after this, Hector tells Paris he feels "mortified" that Paris, who had caused the war, is now afraid to fight, but a line or two later he apologizes for raising the issue: "Later I will make up for anything I may have said."
Occasionally Homer gives his characters super-hero powers, as in Book V when Diomedes picks up a rock to throw at Aeneas—
Even to lift it was a feat beyond the strength of any two men bred today, but Diomedes handled it alone without an effort.
—but far more often the poet paints his heroes as feeble and fallible as humans of all ages. When the Trojans push the Greeks back to their ships, the Greeks "shudder in the grip of Panic…all their captains know the torture of despair." Agamemnon, with "tears running down his cheeks like water trickling from a spring," advises that they give up and go home, a speech that his troops hear in the "silence…of speechless dejection."
The humanity of Homer's heroes comes out not only in their fear of death and defeat, but also in details of their daily life. Homer frequently shows how the Greeks cooked and ate their food:
They first drew back the animals' heads, slit their throats, and flayed them. Then they cut out slices from the thighs, wrapped them in folds of fat, and laid raw meat above them. These pieces the old priest burnt on the faggots while he sprinkled red wine over the flames, and the young men gathered around him with five-pronged forks in their hands.
In Book IX a group of Greek ambassadors come to Achilles' tent at night to urge him to fight again; Achilles refuses but keeps the party polite:
As he finished speaking, Achilles quietly signaled Patroclus with a movement of his eyebrows to make the bed for Phoenix, so that the others might think of getting on their way as soon as possible.
When I first noticed that passage, I laughed out loud: how many times have I, with a lift of my eyebrows, signaled to my wife, or has she signaled to me, that, "Okay, glad you thought dinner was delicious and so was dessert, but, folks, it's time to get your coats and say bye-bye!"
A few pages later Agamemnon gets back to his own tent, but he has "too much on his mind for easeful sleep." More than the prospects of battle, his noisy neighbors keep him awake: "the music of the flutes and reed-pipes, the voices of the troops." Finally he gives up, gets up, and sends Odysseus and Diomedes on a scouting expedition.
The two soon catch Dolon, a Trojan spy, and in a brief scene Homer paints a cold-blooded scene of war as humans did, do and always will fight it. Dolon begs for mercy, Odysseus lets him think they'll spare him, but as soon as Dolon has told them everything he knows, Diomedes stabs him with a sword— "Dolon's head met the dust before he ceased to speak"—and Odysseus strips him and throws his ragged clothes behind a bush.
Anyone familiar with The Iliad knows of Achilles' overwhelming grief when Hector kills Patroclus, his closest comrade, but it's easy to overlook the heartbreaking passage—change the names and it could be from any war in history—when Homer, having described Patroclus' grisly death, describes Achilles still innocently confident that he lives:
Highborn Achilles had as yet no inkling of Patroclus' death. They were fighting a long way from the gallant ships, under the wall so Troy, and it never entered his head that Patroclus had been killed. He thought of him as pressing on to the very gates, but then returning safe and sound.
Achilles does get the terrible news and sinks "into the black depths of despair." When he recovers, he relentlessly pursues Hector who, deep in his own mind, is pursued by agonizing doubts and recriminations:
He thought, "If I retire behind the gated wall, Polydamas will cast it in my teeth that I did not take his advice and order a withdrawal into the city….I could not bear to hear some commoner say: ‘Hector trusted in his own right arm and lost an army.' But it will be said, and then I shall know that it would have been better to stand up to Achilles and either kill him and come home alive or myself die gloriously in front of Troy."
As three thousand years of readers know, Achilles does kill Hector, and the Greeks celebrate with feasting and Olympic games, but until this reading I'd never noticed this timeless bit of slapstick. In one foot race Odysseus and Ajax approach the finish line neck and neck, but the track, marked out in a pasture, is littered with cow manure, and Ajax slips and falls filling "his mouth and nostrils with cattle dung." Spitting out the foul goop, he complains that a goddess must have tripped him up, "but the Greeks only laughed at him, delightedly."
In The Iliad's last book the wrath that opens the poem fades into forgveness. King Priam, Hector's father, comes to the Greek camp to beg for the return of his son's body. Achilles grants the request, and the two men share their grief in one of the most tender scenes in all literature:
Priam had set Achilles thinking of his own father and brouht him to the edge of tears. Taking the old man's hand, he gently put him from him; and overcome by their memories, they both broke down. Priam crouching at Achilles' feet wept bitterly for man-slaying Hector, and Achilles wept for his father and then again for Patroclus. The house was filled with the sounds of their lamentations.
Homer touches so often on this broad gamut of all-too-human emotions—fear, vanity, indecision, grief, cruelty, calculation, and comedy, that he creates a subtle counter melody to balance The Iliad's dominant melody of wrathful warfare. The first time through all we hear is big theme, all fortissimo trumpets and kettle drums, but the more we listen to this ancient symphony of words, the more we can hear the flutes and oboes that sing their own plaintive, quirky songs. Wedded in one timeless masterwork, the two themes remind us that Agamemnon and Odysseus are no more or less human than we, and we no more or less human than they.