1 May 2009

The First Word in Western Literature...

...is "menis," which means wrath or rage. It comes to us from one of the two oldest books, save the Bible, continuously in print, The Iliad. The Iliad, often thought of as the story of the Trojan War, is really a story, or a series of stories, connected to this one theme: The wrath of Achilles. In English, the opening goes thusly (Lattimore translation):

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pain thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

This is the story of how Achilles rage nearly destroys the Greeks and brings an end to their war at Troy. With Achilles at Troy are a host of the Greek heroes: Agammemnon, the lord of men and the son of Atreus mentioned in the opening. There is also the lethal Diomedes and tricky Odysseus, and the two Ajaxes, and the cuckold Menelaus. There is the old man Nestor, who reminisces about the days when he was young and could have beaten any of the whippersnappers around him. Opposite them stand the heroes of Troy, Aeneas, Paris who started the war with his adultery with Helen, and the doomed Hector, breaker of horses. There is their father Priam and wife Hecuba, and Cassandra, he cursed prophetess who sees the future but will never be believed. Beyond the humans stand the gods who are whimsical and capricious, yet at the same time implacable and remorseless. Beyond the gods are the fates which bind even the gods. It is appropriate that the word 'fate' is the root word of 'fatal', for the fates are deadly.

These were the heroes of the Greek imagination. To the modern mind they often seem more like spoiled children than heroes. The story begins with an argument between Agamemnon and Achilles in which each acts petulantly. Chryses, a priest of Apollo came to the Greek camp and asked for the return of his daughter Chryseis of the fair cheeks, who had been given to Agamemnon as a war prize. He offers Agamemnon a rich ransom for the return of his daughter. Agamemnon refuses, and Chryses prays to Apollo to turn his wrath against the Greeks for this dishonour. Every night afterwards Apollo, he who shoots from afar, descends on the Greek camp and slays the Greeks with his arrows. Achilles calls for a meeting in the camp and asks Agamemnon to send Chryseis to her father with offerings to placate the wrath of Apollo, but Agamemnon is upset that he of all the Greeks should be asked to surrender his war prize, and demands that Achilles surrender his prize, the girl Briseis, to replace the daughter of Chryses as Agamemnon's war prize. Achilles is enraged at this dishonour, and refuses to join the Greeks in their battle against Troy. He is enraged, for he came to Troy under a prophecy. He had been given a choice: go to Troy and have a short life, but everlasting fame, or stay at home and have a long life as a non-entity. He chose the short life and fame, but now it seems he is to be denied his fame and therefore prepares to return home with his people and let the Greeks battle for Troy without him.

The majority of the book is taken up with the problems Achilles absence causes the Greeks, and with Zeus' plan to bring Achilles honour. He does this by handing the Greeks into the power of Hector. He gives Hector victory on the battlefield, and for two days makes him unbeatable. For these days Hector rages across the field and drives the Greeks before him: no Greek can stand against him. The Greeks beg Achilles, their greatest fighter, to return to the battle and defend them against Hector, but to no avail. In the end, Hector slays Achilles best friend Patroclus and the grief over that loss brings Achilles back into the battle and he now goes on a rampage and annihilates every Trojan who stands in his way, until he meets Hector before the gates of Troy and destroys him there. In this way his wrath is brought to a close, and everlasting fame is his.

The heroes are subject to rage and crying, to the point that Plato would have censored the Iliad for teaching warriors to be unmanly. The gods capriciously pick one hero and support them over all the others. Athena gives strength to Diomedes. Zeus and Apollo give strength to Hector. Many gods support Achilles- Hephaistos gives him magic armour that cannot be pierced, Zeus lends him strength. When he screams his war cry Athena screams with him. So favoured is he of the gods that Aeneas, himself no stranger to divine favour, complains that no one can meet him on an equal footing.

If for the ancient Greeks the great hero was Achilles, the modern reader tends to be more sympathetic to Hector, the man who was not motivated by rage, but by a desire to save his people, a man who was given glory only to make Achilles more glorious. Their meeting is foreordained and Hector's doom is certain. Everything in the Iliad tells you this, even the adjectives. Hector is big, Achilles is huge. Hector is strong, Achilles is stronger. Hector is angry, Achilles is enraged, and his wrath is all encompassing. Hector meets Achilles on the field, doomed but brave, ready to go down fighting. They speak before they fight, and Hector asks Achilles for a bargain: Whoever falls, the other will grant the body back to their people for proper burial. Achilles refuses all such bargains. Hector, who earlier in the book said how he hated war but since war has come to his home he has learned to be brave, tells Achilles

(you will not) make me afraid and forget my valour and war strength.
You will not stick your spear in my back as I run away from you
but drive it into my chest as I storm straight in against you;
if the god gives you that;

Doomed, but determined to go down fighting, Hector is fatally wounded by Achilles, and has one last chance to speak. He begs Achilles to return his body to his family. Achilles refuses, and answers Hector in his typical hyperbole:

No more entreating of me, you dog, by knees or by parents.
I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me
to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that
you have done to me

And he promises to feed Hector to the dogs. Hector, dying, speaks a prophecy:

Be careful now; for I might be made into a gods' curse
upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoibos Apollo
destroy you in the Skaian gates, for all your valour.

Achilles embraces his own destruction if it means he may have his vengeance upon Hector, and takes Hector's glory for his own.

For myself, the character I tend to sympathise with is the greater Ajax, who Homer always claims is the greatest fighter in the Greek camp but for Achilles. Less glorious in battle than the other heroes, is great moment is during the rampage of Hector, when Hector drives all the Greeks from the field and sends them reeling to their camp and back to their hollow ships. All the other heroes are wounded or pushed from the field. Ajax alone stands firm and keeps the retreat from turning into a rout. He organizes the defense on the field. When he is driven to the camp he stands on the walls and holds the Trojans off as long as he can. From there he is driven back to the ships, and when he is last seen, just before Patroclus rides to the rescue, he is one the deck of a burning ship, weeping that the war should end this way, but still fighting, and never giving up.

There is a sense of pessimism about this book. Very few of the heroes make good ends. Also, the heroes are raised up in stature through comparisons to the people of the day, and the contemporary people are on the losing end. They are the lesser sons of greater sires. The heroes walked in a world slightly less fallen than that of the contemporary Greeks. We are told that Hector picks up a rock, a rock so huge that twelve men such as they are today could not have lifted it, but Hector heaved it easily and hurled it at the Greeks. Such comparisons happen throughout the story, driving home the fact that contemporary men were no match for the heroes of old, the men of the bronze age. The Greek mythic view of history was that time was getting worse. Men descended from a distant golden age to a silver age, from thence to the bronze age of these heroes, and thence to the age of Iron. Their heroes were a little less fallen than themselves, and for the Greeks time would only get worse.

The last chapters of the Iliad are taken up with the funeral games the Greeks hold in honour of Patroclus. Achilles slaughters prisoners, and drags the body of Hector around the pyre, but his wrath is now cooled. Hector's death has brought him fame, but it has not brought him back his friend. In the end, he goes back on his word and accepts Priam's ransom for the body of Hector, and tells Priam to have a proper funeral for his son while Achilles will keep the Greeks from attacking Troy while all observances are made for Hector. Hector's funeral ends the story.

This, then is the first work of Western literature, or as much as I wish to say about it in a short post. There were other works which came before it, now lost. If they have any influence it is because of the influence they had on this work. The influence of this work and its companion, the Odyssey, cannot be overstated, with one caveat which I shall get to in a few posts. While Plato would have banned these works from his ideal republic, Aristotle considered them to be the perfect works of art, and believed that all epic poetry should be modeled after them. Aristotle's student, Alexander the Great, carried the Iliad in a golden chest with him on his conquest of all the known world. He is even rumoured to have slept with scrolls of the Iliad under his pillow as inspiration, and is also said to have wept that he lacked a poet like Homer to tell of his deeds, and he envied Achilles his scribe. The poetry of the piece is breathtaking in its beauty. The hollow ships riding the wine dark seas. Heroes who spill the black blood, whose knees are unstrung in their turn.

Yet Plato did have a point. The heroes weep and behave childishly and petulantly. The gods live for lust and whims, and are bound by an unbreakable fate. Epicurus famously said it would be more pious to believe there were no gods than to believe in such gods as these. The heroes' virtues are vanity, wrath, greed, envy and vengeance. When I continue, if I continue, with this subject at some future date, I will continue with the Odyssey, the story of a man who is vain, boastful, lying, lustful and homicidal, and I can hardly refrain from adding "and those are his good points."

The author John C Wright wrote that the Iliad and the Odyssey are the origins of all Western literature, and the rest of our literature constitutes a footnote to these two great works. Overstatement, perhaps, but not by much. Western literature begins with these works. Thankfully, it did not end here.

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