Great stories are the ones which you happen to know about even before you’ve read them, and how can Iliad be an exception. Everyone knows about Helen of Troy, the Trojan horse, the brave Achilles, the empathetic Patroclus and the courageous Hector; and so even I was no stranger to these.
But I was a stranger to the very magnificence of this great work and the extremely unique resonance it creates.
When Iliad begins, it begins from the point of view of the Greeks, history belongs to them, they are the heroes which directly implies that destruction of Troy is something one must cheer for.
But as the story continues, Trojans are humanised.
It is gradually inferred that perhaps they are not the villains. They are not the enemy who must be conquered, they lead peaceful lives embellished with beauty and nobility, which in ways is more than what the Greeks ever did possess.
And this is what a great story does, it helps us see humans for humans & not through the propaganda of history or some unwarranted faith that would compel us to let go of our empathy & humanity.
*Mild spoilers if not aware of the story*
Homer’s Iliad begins with the ‘song of Achilles’ and ends with the ‘funeral of Hector’. It begins with the glory and vanity of warriors and war but paradoxically ends with the inevitable shattering of peace and mournings of the people of Troy. These two protagonists of the story are the two endpoints, the beginning and the end. It is their song and their martyrdom to a war which was never theirs. (Though Achilles did not actually die in Iliad but it is foretold and it is already known to the reader).
The transition which happens when you begin cheering for Achilles but end up rooting for Hector is something which stood out for me. Hector is courage to Achilles’ arrogance, nobility to Achilles’ vanity, tragedy to Achilles’ revenge.
Both of them are fierce and wrathful, they complement each other yet they are poles apart. Hector is a mere human while Achilles is half God, still the story somehow transcends so much so that by the end of the tale the victory and valour stands no where close to the very tragedy that befell an honest and brave man. It ends with the heart wrenching death of Hector and the wrath of Achilles is so terrible that even though you understand his actions (for Patroclus’ fall) you can never forgive the sheer magnitude of its wrongness and hatred.
All the glory of war crumbles down as you are left with tears. Undoubtedly, Achilles was honourable but the pitiable state he brings himself to in his rage is destructive and somehow reduces your empathy towards him.
There is also the pitiable state of Andromache who is left distraught and broken after the death of her loving husband. If only she was as valorous as Achilles, she would have revenged her fallen lover as well. But alas, that is what this world is. It chooses the victor and crowns him with jewels and glory while the weak are left at the mercy of the strong. But even in her weakness, Andromache comes out as a beautiful fierce woman.
The sheer poetry of the glory yet worthlessness of war is why Iliad is such a tremendous work.
And obviously, the Gods. The entire trickery and strings they pull is frustrating if taken literally but if seen through a metaphorical lens, they make a lot of sense. After all, isn’t it the very human thing to blame the divine intervention whenever you are left with no choice.