12 Books of Christmas: The Iliad

We are at an interesting moment in cultural awareness, where all cultural values in The West ™ are being renegotiated for new sensibilities and emergent values. One recent focus for these has been Leia, from Star Wars. Two things seem to be particularly controversial: the first kiss between Han and Leia, and the slave bikiniStar Wars is a key cultural product in our conception of culture and cultural values – the franchise has only become bigger and more pervasive as time has gone on. The response to any such critiques of individual elements of any of the films, so overwhelmingly beloved, is a strong cognitive dissonance. How can I love The Empire Strikes Back while understanding the perception on relationships it appears to endorse? The Guardian article above tries to rehabilitate the film by interpreting Leia as the protagonist – perhaps that’s right, but it’s a very deep reading counter to some pretty strong and overt readings.

Discussions like this make it seem like perhaps we’re watching a new film, because it has a new meaning – but just the opposite is taking place. The film, the work of art, is perfectly static and it is us who is changing, and our changing interpretation and our changing emphasis on different aspects of the fictions tells us about ourselves. I sometimes think that one sign that a work of art is truly great is its versatility as a mirror, the depths and contradictions it harbours for exploring the reader’s world; the great epics have survived for thousands of years because they provide just such a mirror. Whether Star Wars will join that pantheon, or be forgotten in part depends on generating, sustaining, and surviving exactly these kinds of controversies. In The West, there is no more successful or enduring work of literature than The Iliad, and perhaps only Gilgamesh in the entire world is its peer. The Iliad and its many, many derivatives provide us with a way of thinking about fictions and about how fictions survive their problematic aspects.

My own writing on The Iliad has always focused on what became the kernel of The Western and hence the template of the modern action genre: nemesis. It is also ultimately three perspectives on the love story, which might help us understand the different sexual modes that Leia experiences in Star Wars.  I say “love story”, but of course love in the Iliad is principally a matter of male property, and the events of the narrative are triggered by Chryseis recovering his stolen daughter from Agamemnon, who restores his “lost honour” by taking Briseis from Achilles. Briseis is comforted by Patroclus, who promises her the status of a full wife of Achilles when the war is over – but there is no concept of mutual consent in the Greek side of the war, which is motivated by the “love” of Menelaus for Helen, who’s been stolen by Paris because of his “love” for her. Hector’s relationship with Andromache is perhaps the closest to what we’d view as acceptable, but even there, he places his honour and thus the requirement that he fight, above his immediate responsibilities to Andromache. Ultimately, Achilles’ anger is resolved by his love for Patroclus, whose death motivates him in a way that mere love for a woman doesn’t motivate anyone else. What’s important about male-female relationships in The Iliad is that men are largely interchangeable as far as the women are concerned – at least, structurally. Does it matter to Helen whether she’s held by Paris or Menelaus? She doesn’t seem to have any complaints in The Odyssey when visited by Telemachus. As far as gender politics go, it’s almost as far from modern sensibilities as you can get.

How can we enjoy such a reprehensible work, predicated as it is on nested and sequential abduction of women, which positions them as chattel at best? The honest answer is that it’s not really possible to enjoy those aspects of the story, but it is possible to recover a lot from Homer even within that context – to rehabilitate the things that still work, and to understand why the things that don’t work are problematic. In the case of Paris’ abduction of Helen, this was reimagined as a genuine love match in the film Troy, while Menelaus’ desires were re-appropriated as a statement of political ambition on the part of Agamemnon. Briseis doesn’t exactly escape that film unscathed, but by adapting and adopting the strongest elements of The Iliad you can almost have your cake and eat it.

It’s important to understand how influential the Iliad has been, and that includes its problematic aspects. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is almost the perfect riposte to Homer’s idea of heroism, since Shakespeare knows that war is a great evil, Henry V not withstanding. If you want to be a good classicist, you also need to understand what it means to be a bad classicist, what’s problematic. And for all that you might not be happy with the pervasive influence of works that are problematic, or have problematic elements, that won’t change the reality you face. Homer’s Iliad is the font of Western Literature – in a good way, and a bad way. Either way, it is indispensable.

Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox, and Rogers D. Spotswood Collection. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1990.

Shakespeare, William, and Kenneth Muir. Troilus and Cressida. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1982.

Petersen, Wolfgang. Troy. Adventure, 2004.

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