(to return to Iliad Table of Contents, click here)
1. Everyone Is Angry: Reading Homer's Iliad, Book I
“Dante is daunting, but you can always hit it out of the park with Homer,”
(see my Wit and Wordplay page)
The purpose of these essays is to make the Iliad accessible and exciting to first time readers as well as experienced students of this epic. I do so through a detailed consideration of Homer's literary
artistry, storytelling ability, and presentation of the psychological realities of war and its warriors. So rich and inviting is Homer’s language, however, that this entire study will focus only on the flow of Book I of the Iliad. Book I is a remarkable book, taking us from the destructive rage of Achilles and other leading figures at the beginning to the celebration of the gods on Olympus at the end. In between we see many examples of human (and divine) folly, miscalculation, jealousy and conflict. This conflict is often aided and abetted by divine intervention, even though that intervention can, at times, bring a temporary respite or even peace.
Though these essays provide a detailed guide to Book I, they also give you a method of reading the epic as a whole for pleasure and knowledge. By mastering this method, you will
have all the tools you need, except a knowledge of Homeric Greek, which isn’t as difficult to learn as you might imagine, to maximize your study of the rest of the Iliad. The Iliad is “great”
or “classic” literature because generations of readers have found not simply insight into another era in the text but have, in fact, found their own lives there. The Iliad functions as a sort of
mirror to help us understand the nature of human motivation, the play of the emotions, the tenuousness of alliances, the griefs and losses of life, the tentative nature of victory and the often
relentless, apparently meaningless and benumbing character of each unfulfilled day.
Reading Homer Today
The Scriptures say that “of the making of books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes 12:12. If I were to add only a word of twenty-first century interpretation to that Scripture, I would say, “Of
the making of books about Homer there is no end.” Homer is the most popular subject in classical studies on which to write, and the annual output of Homerica even exceeds that of works
on Shakespeare. He is the great fountainhead of our literary tradition, and we continually return to him in an (unavailing?) attempt to slake our thirst.
This book adds to that toppling collection of works on Homer. But it differs from most in two respects. First, I have tried to let Book I tell us its full story with little interference from secondary
scholarship in our day. This method reflects what we might call the “Chicago-Reed” method of reading a classic text. The goal of this method is to let the text speak through its raw power,
without distracting attention from the text through a variety of literary “helps,” most of which seem designed to argue some thesis about Homer rather than engage readers in the pleasure and
difficulties of the text. I call it the “Chicago-Reed” method because it reflects the “Great Books” approach coming out of the University Chicago in the 1930s and subsequently incorporated
faithfully at Reed College (Portland OR), where I taught in the 1980s. Reed had, and has, an intense commitment to learning, a commitment based on confident and earnest reading of classic
texts combined with frequent student writing on and discussion of those texts. Followers of higher education in our day (2020) will note that this long-time commitment of Reed College to classic texts of the Western tradition in translation has been under significant attack in the past few years. Though not weighing in on that tussle here, I would say that at least two kinds of competencies are helpful in order to navigate the perils of the modern world of learning: a) a detailed mastery of what the tradition has heretofore called "classic" literature; and b) an intense concentration on the way that contemporary realities, both in world history and literary insight, might add new literature to, subtract literature from or give a different reading to this recognized or "classic" literature.
Second, this book differs from most Homeric scholarship in that it engages in a continuous conversation with each of the 611 lines of Book I of the Iliad. I do so through connected essays rather than through brief textual comments or short summaries
of each unit of text. Thus, this book is neither a monograph on a particular problem in reading the Iliad nor is it a detailed “summary” of Book I’s contents. Though no real knowledge of Homeric Greek is necessary to read this book, I hope that one of
the points that comes across clearly is the advantage of having that knowledge to enhance our appreciation and enjoyment of the Iliad.
This book takes seriously the fact that Homer’s epic is great because it skillfully probes perennial human problems. Thus I will often briefly digress into a consideration of the nature of human
folly or arrogance, or of the way that Book I might find resonance in today’s world. When I was trained to read classical texts in graduate school in the late 1970s, the stress was on keeping the
texts in their context. That is, don’t try to modernize; don’t try to say that the text should provide interpretive lenses to limn or sift the current day. But though I respect that approach to the text, I
end up asking myself, if I solely pursue that method, why the text actually still lives. It certainly lives because the life described there amplifies, judges, and gives perspective to our lives today.
The Iliad is a great story; providing a thick description of that story will be my goal.
Though I will not be involved in a significant conversation with secondary literature in this book, I tip my hand here as to what I believe to be the most productive contribution of Homeric
scholarship in the twentieth century and the most promising avenue of twenty-first century scholarship. Without doubt, the most signal contribution to Homeric scholarship in the twentieth century was the recognition of the orality of the poems. This may sound like a trivially obvious comment, but it is the basis of the work of Milman Perry and, after his premature and tragic death, his student Albert Lord. Lord’s 1960 work The Singer of Tales studied the way that modern bards, mostly from the Balkans, mastered and recited the diverse stories of their cultures. Using these as modern analogues, Lord argued that the Homeric texts as we have them reflect long periods of oral recitation and development, with the bard being both constrained by the tradition yet free in its
And, it is this notion of what one might call pre-history or “parallel history” of the oral presentation and written story of the text which forms the basis of the most far-reaching Homeric
project in our day, the Homer Multitext Project of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies (https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/1169). The goal of this project is to take fully seriously the oral nature of the tradition behind and running parallel to the writing down of the Iliad for
the millennium from the time of its composition until the early Middle Ages.
In its own words, the goal of the project is:
“to present the textual transmission of the Iliad and
Odyssey in a historical framework. Such a framework
is needed to account for the full reality of a complex
medium of oral performance that underwent many
changes over a long period of time. These changes,
as reflected in the many texts of Homer, need to
be understood in their many different historical
Significant for this project is the fact that it makes use of the most modern technological resources to present not simply “the text” of the Iliad but of a resonant and continuing conversation
with texts of the Iliad at any time of its transmission history. The hope is that the continuing power of the Iliad and Odyssey will be realized as we fully take seriously their nature of oral or recited
The essays that follow give particular attention to the flow of Homer’s language and the visual and aural feasts he provides through his words. My hope is that through these essays you
may discover the continuing power of this culture-shaping story and perhaps, through its mastery, learn to tell your own story, and that of others, with more precision, panache and power.