Great Books of Western Literature: The Iliad

1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

The Iliad, along with the Odyssey, is contained in the first volume of literature in the Great Books of the Western World series.    Along with the Iliad, I read notes to the Iliad by various scholars that were edited by Harold Bloom himself.    However, since the work was originally a work of oral poetry, I went and downloaded the LibriVox recording of the 24 books of the Iliad to listen to them as well as read them.

For a synopsis of the work, I ask that readers turn to the Wikipedia article on The Iliad and refer to the section on Synopsis.   I will focus on 5 themes of the work as I encountered it in my reading and listening to the work.

2.  5 Themes

a.   The Epic

The Iliad is an example of a epic, which according to William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed. (Prentice Hall, 1999), has the following 10 elements.

  1. It begins in medias res, in the middle of the story.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme.
  5. Includes the use of epithets, or descriptive stock phrases, such as “swift-footed Achilles.”
  6. Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  7. Features long and formal speeches.
  8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  10. Often features the tragic hero’s descent into the Underworld or hell.


For me, the tension in the Iliad comes from the fact that, against this background of what an epic should consist of, the values of the civilization (epic feature #9 in the list above) called the Heroic Code are in fact threatened at the outset by the anger of Achilles (the theme of the work, feature #4 in the list above).    The aristocratic heroes of the Iliad belong to what we might anachronistically call “the 1%”, in that they get the best food, the best women, and the best land in ancient Greece.   However, there is a sense of noblesse oblige in the sense that these highest rewards also come at the price of high responsibility, in this case, to go and fight the enemy and go to risk one’s life.    Agamemnon takes from Achilles his “prize” that he has one by capturing one of two Trojan maidens when the other one must be returned to the Trojans by Agamemnon.    Achilles’ petulant anger at this insult to his ego causes him to withdraw not just physically into his tent to sulk, but also from the social compact implied by the Heroic Code, because he refuses to fight and do his duty.    It is only the death of his fighting companion Patroclus which causes him to return to the Heroic Code at the end of the work.    So the tension between the social compact of the Heroic Code and Achilles’ overweening anger is what gives this epic story a personal dimension.    The problem with the epic is that it covers such a sweeping panorama both in time (the Trojan War takes place over 10 years) and space (the Iliad covers the actions on earth and in the immortal realm of the gods), that it has to have someway to ground the reader emotionally in the story of individual people or the reader would be simply overwhelmed.    The fact that Homer accomplishes this is the equivalent of a filmmaker like Peter Jackson who shoots epic battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings with a wide-angle lens but who stops from time to time for a close-up shot of the various heroes of the story doing battle.    In terms of aesthetics, it is a tension between the beautiful (the relationship of the reader to the human element of the story) and the sublime (the apprehension of the trans-human or elemental aspects of the story).

b.  The Greek Map of the Kosmos

If you think of the physical universe, and then the universe of supernatural beings imposed on it, you get the larger view of what might be called the Kosmos.    The Kosmos is mapped differently for the Greeks that it exists for the people of today.    For example, the relationship between animals and man might be similar, but the relationship between man and the supernatural beings called gods is conceived differently.    God in Western religion is more remote, more transcendent of the mortal world, than the gods of the ancient Greek religion were.    In the Christian religion, Jesus is considered both mortal and divine, but he is the only figure to have that status.    In Greek myths, mortals and divine beings mixed more frequently, and there were many that had the status of both (like Achilles), which was explained by their being the offspring of both mortal and immortal beings.

It is the fact that the divine beings are more imminent in human affairs than transcendent of them, that gives the Iliad quite a different feel than an epic story of our modern age, like the D-Day Invasion or the landing on the Moon.

c.  Sex, Gender, and Power

Another element that makes the world of the Greeks partially alien to us is the fact that homosexuality or bisexuality was not considered aberrant, but rather part of the normal range of human sexual expression.    Taking the word “gay” in all of its modern cultural implications and labeling the Greek culture with it is a hazardous enterprise at best.  But the Iliad’s final chapters, where Achilles comes back to himself and fights for against the Trojans, is only made possible because of his grief for the death of Patroclus.     Entering into that world and comprehending Achilles’ mental turmoil at the death of his fighting companion and lover is only possible if you leave your 20th-century prejudices behind.   (I say 20th-century not just because that was the century I was born into, but because these prejudices show signs of disappearing in the 21st century that we are in.)

The entire work of Iliad takes place in a man’s world with women such as Helen playing only an ancillary or supporting role.    The conflict between the works of the Iliad  and the Odyssey is the conflict between “waging the war” and “waging the peace”, but it is also the difference between the male only world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is a reconciliation between the relationships of men and women.    Women must be related to as wives, mothers, and daughters, and not just as extensions of property and power, as they are in the Iliad.

d.  The Language and Structure of the Iliad

One of the reasons for the epithets or formulaic constructions (#5 in the list above) is that the Iliad is a poem written in a particular combination of syllables, and these combinations give the poem its rhythm.    The epithets such as “swift-footed Achilles” fit the formula for these syllables, and that is why they are used.    But the formulaic constructions go beyond the level of the phrase, and even extent to entire scenes.   Whenever there is a sacrifice of oxen given to the gods, the sacrifice is described in almost identical language each time.    These type-scenes become like puzzle-pieces that are fit together to form a verse, and one of the reasons why they are there are because they are an aid to memory:    this work was written down only later, but was originally composed as a long poem to be memorized.

Another interesting feature of the structure of the Iliad which makes it interesting reading, is the simile, which describes the warlike action in terms that sometimes come from the peaceful, domestic life of the Greeks.    Besides being images that are very vivid and descriptive, they also provide a remarkable contrast between the peaceful life at home away from the war and the horrific violence that the fighters are undergoing during that war.    It can often be quite jarring, and is the opposite from the “flashback” that happens to those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in our modern world, where scenes of violence get recalled upon returning to that peaceful world.

In any case, it is that juxtaposition of those two worlds of peace and war, and their merging through these Homeric similes, as they are called, which gives the work its unforgettable character.

e.   Empathy

One of the interesting things about reading the book is the extent to which Homer allows the ostensible antagonist, Hector, the leader of the Trojans against whom the Greeks are fighting, a more sympathetic portrayal than the protagonist Achilles.   Hector is the one who seems the most level-headed in that is a warrior as brave as Achilles, but who has tender relations with wife and child, respectful love for his father, and who never has an equivalent of what we call today an “emotional meltdown” like Achilles does.    It is the work of a mature artist to create an enemy with whom one can sympathize, and who is not a cartoon villain, but someone whose point of view can easily be empathized with.

This was a constant source of wonder for me as I read the work, because I was rooting for Hector and I wanted him to succeed, but I knew that he was doomed to lose, which made his death towards the end of the work even more poignant.   I suspect that is how the Greeks felt as well.

3.  Conclusion

This epic was a great work in and of itself, but what is more marvelous to me is the fact that the Iliad and the Odyssey are such different works, and yet they are the work of the same author.   I look forward to reading the Odyssey and having Odysseus return from the battle of Troy.


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