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43. The Rest of The Story
It has taken me more than 60,000 words to explain one book of the Iliad. If I were to devote similar attention to the rest of the epic, this book would be more than 5,000 pages in length. What can I do in the remaining few words when a million more might not even suffice? That is the task of this brief, concluding chapter.
Rather than trying to do a whirlwind tour of the contents of the next 23 books, I will first mention a significant stylistic feature of Homer and then close with a few remarks on important events or
passages in the rest of the Iliad.
A Word on Style
The nineteenth century essayist and poet Matthew Arnold gave one of the more memorable assessments of Homer’s verse:
“For Homer is not only rapid in movement, simple in style, plain in language and natural in thought; he is also, and above all noble.” “Homer in Ballad Verse,” in On Translating Homer (1861), p. 44.
Arnold only arrives at this assessment after dismissing another person, Mr. Newman, who described Homer’s style as:
“direct, popular, forceful, quaint, flowing, garrulous. . .Homer rises sinks with his subject, is prosaic when it is tame, is low when it is mean,” Ibid., p. 33.
Arnold took issue with the four words “quaint, garrulous, prosaic, low,” and said that anyone who uses these words to describe Homer “can never render Homer truly.” It is not my purpose or interest to weigh in on the “Newman v. Arnold” debate. What I think is significant, however, is
that two avid nineteenth century readers of Homer could disagree so significantly on the most basic terminology to describe Homer’s style. They could only do so, it seems, if Homer is so diverse
and multi-form, so engagingly variable, that it just might not be valuable to try to describe his style in a few words. It might be better to see it at work.
To that end, I will only introduce one other aspect of his style here: the Homeric simile. A simile likens something to something else. No global attempt to explain the role of similes in Homer is appropriate here. It might be good, however, to read Homer’s first simile, in Book II. The Achaian men are gathering for a crucial meeting. Homer says (II. 87-91):
“Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone, and hang like bunched grapes as they hover beneath the flowers in
springtime fluttering in swarms together this way and that way, so the many nations of men….marched in order"
We have a multi-tiered and powerfully suggestive image here. The bees “issue forever” and they “hang.” We see in our mind’s eye the hordes that keep coming as if the stone itself gave them birth, and then we see them bunch together and swarm this way and that. They are, as it were, produced by an inanimate object, and then they move as if united to a fruit. We are released from the war for a moment, and we rest on a more pleasant image. Then, before we escape too far into our thoughts, Homer suddenly brings us back to the men marching in clusters--just like the bees described. An appeal to nature allows a momentary “escape” from the impossible decisions, irrepressible conflicts and insufferable egos that accompany war and participation in the public arena. This is the first of dozens of such similes in Homer, and some are even are double or triple-tiered.
Three Ways to Read Homer
Rather than rushing to Arnold’s five-fold characterization of Homeric narrative, we can use simile to help us understand other aspects of his writing method. First, Homer’s is a narrative that makes us want to linger over it. Even though the action at times may be fast, the deaths many and the distance covered in a few lines vast, the Iliad is, for me, a book to be, as it were, caressed. It repays gentle and careful reading. We smile at the actions of men and gods, we pause over the pictures painted, we enjoy both the formulas and strikingly new things.
But we linger over the Iliad so that we might internalize it. There aren’t too many people these days who talk about internalizing texts, but the classical tradition itself, both Greek/Latin and Hebrew, knew a lot about this kind of mastery. The Biblical prophet Ezekiel could talk about the revelation of God to him as a scroll that he ingested (Ezekiel 3:3):
“Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey"
Homer provides more than a good meal, or even a banquet. He is a continual feast of delight, bedecking the tables of our minds with the most exquisitely tasty and alluring foods. Once we have learned to read the Iliad as I suggested for Book I, all our senses are piqued. We want to see which words are used to describe someone talking, angry, bitter, sitting. We want to hear the clanging of shields, and the cries of men and women. We want to smell the aroma of the evening fires. We want to taste the meals. We want to touch the hollow ships or the neatly embossed shields. We want to be there to weigh the emotions and their effect on the battle. We want to climb into the narrative and straighten up the tangled skein of mis-communication, or the "raveled sleave of care" that has taken place.
But we internalize Homer so that, in the final analysis, we might enjoy him. This enjoyment happens for two reasons. First, and obviously, it is the pleasure of reading a story well-told, a story of vivid description of human striving, emotion, hypocrisy and nobility. But, even more, as we enjoy the Iliad, we begin to recognize that it is this book that bequeathed so many things to Western culture. Not only did it birth the epic tradition, a tradition that didn’t really die out until the seventeenth century, but it became almost like sacred Scripture to Greeks and Romans of later centuries. Homeric quotations adorn nearly every classical, and many modern, works. It is as if these authors themselves wanted to internalize the phrases and sentiments of the blind bard.
So, rather than trying to come up with an array of adjectives to describe Homer’s method, just think of three verbs: linger, internalize, enjoy, and it will open wide to you.
A Word on the Rest of the Story
It takes Homer 23 more books to describe the war, but even at the end of Book XXIV the Trojan War is not over. The most famous event from the battle’s termination, the story of the Trojan horse, isn’t found in Homer at all—we have to read Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid for that story.
But Homer gives us such a rich description of war’s pain and promise, interlaced with human emotion and divine intervention, that we scarcely care that the battle isn’t over by the end of the Iliad. Here are a few events or features that spark interest from the rest of the Iliad.
Book II opens with Zeus’ decision to send a dream into the head of Agamemnon to the effect that now is the time to attack the Trojans. Agamemnon, however, in order to test the mettle of the
troops, calls them together and urges the contrary on them—to retreat home. It is in the context of this convocation that we meet the simile of the bees, quoted above. We not only have vigorous
oratory and counsel exchanged, but we are also introduced to the only person ever called “ugly” in Homer (Thersites) who, in unforgettable language, abuses Agamemnon. He then pays the
price for his effrontery with a sound thrashing from Odysseus.
Well, Book II is about introductions, and nearly half of it is devoted to the famous “catalogue of ships,” where Homer recites the names and places of origin of significant Achaians. After a broken
truce in Book III, the battle is on. Homer skillfully weaves the most intimate human scenes with the seemingly impersonal carnage of war. In Books III-IV, for example, we have both a description of deaths of many minor figures along with the unforgettable scene of Helen’s walk along the city walls of Troy to see and recognize some of the Achaians with whom she formerly lived. So vivid was the scene in the eyes of English readers that the word teichoscopy, or a “view from the walls,” was coined as an English word in the nineteenth century. We might use the word profitably today, though we certainly would have to explain ourselves, to describe any kind of longing look from a balustraded or fenced observation point.
The fortunes of war go back and forth and, to Homer’s immense credit, he livens the deadening and inconclusive to and fro of war with sterling vignettes, similes and stories of life. Sometimes we have the “noble” Homer at work, to use Arnold’s phrase when, for example, the lineage of the scepter of authority in Achaian assemblies is introduced in Book II or when two famous warriors, Glaucus and Diomedes exchange stories of their lineage before engaging in a fight in Book VI. When they discover they are related, they figuratively beat their swords into ploughshares by exchanging armor. Then, even though war has been, for thousands of years, men’s business, there are touching family scenes, like that in Book VI, where the Trojan hero Hector separates from his beloved wife Andromache and young son, Astyanax. The latter is terrified on seeing his armor-bedraped father, and we, the reader, are reminded again that war, rather than being an ennobling activity, is instinctually revolting.
So engaged are we in the ebb and flow of war that we almost forget that the Iliad is, fundamentally, the story of Achilles’ menin. So Homer returns to him in Book IX, but in an interesting way. The Achaians have their backs, literally, to the sea and are in danger of being over-waved by the rush of the Trojans and the sea. So, Agamemnon sends an embassy, laden with gifts, to Achilles to try to restore his honor and urge his return to battle. We immediately are ushered into a scene of close familiarity, as Achilles and Patroclus are presented the proposal by the Achaian soldiers. Achilles rejects it, and we are reminded that anger is still eating out his heart while the battle rages.
So, on it goes. Finally, in Book XVI we have a turning point. Patroclus, with Achilles permission and in his armor, engages in battle and is killed. Only this act will have the power to call Achilles into battle. Then we have the moving and teary exchange between Achilles and his mother Thetis, in which he tells her about Patroclus’ death. She volunteers to have new armor made for him by none other than the god of fire, Hephaestus. Along with the armor is the shield of Achilles on which are
depicted detailed congeries of domestic and civic scenes. Thetis has warned her son that if he engages in battle he will soon die but Achilles will embrace his fate, believing that the glory
he seeks, and was promised, exceeds the value of a long-lived peaceful life in Phthia.
Achilles joins the war as an enraged and irrepressible combatant, a killing machine of the highest order. He cuts swaths of destruction wherever he goes, but nothing can sate the rage that swells him. Finally, in Book XXII, he faces the Trojan hero, Hector, and kills him. Yet neither does this act stanch his rage but he will continue to drag the corpse of Hector unmercifully around the field of battle.
Some authors lose energy as a book draws to its conclusion. Not Homer. He continues to tell a compelling story with scenes of tremendous power in Books XXIII-XXIV. Suffice it to say that these books include a funeral for Patroclus, funeral games and competitions among the Greeks and a plea from King Priam of Troy for the return of his son’s, Hector’s, body. Achilles will finally relent on that one and, in a scene mirroring the embassy scene to him in Book IX, Priam comes to Achilles for the return of his son. The two men share tears, conversation and a meal together, as they both muse on their losses.
The Iliad ends with the mourning of three women for Hector—Hecuba his mother, Andromache his wife and Helen, who poignantly acknowledges Hector’s kindness to her. Personal story, overwhelming emotion and acts of glory, then, are brought together at the end of this epic. As Edwin Good, one of the most insightful modern translators of and commentators on the Book of Job, has said, after you finish reading the Book of Job and reflecting on it a good, long time, the best thing to do is just to start at the beginning again.
So it is with the Iliad. Once you read and re-read the story, you discover, in an unexpected sort of way, your own life there, and you just have to pick it up again.