A paradox lies at the heart of Iliad. On one hand, the main
characters — especially on the Greek side, but a few Trojans
like Sarpedon qualify as well — are literally superhuman heroes.
They achieve feats of strength, agility, and dexterity that verge
on the ridiculous. In comparison to some of their actions, the
combat in Lord of the Rings looks stunningly realistic (even
when Legolas skateboards a shield down a flight of stairs while shooting
arrows at Uruk-hai or single-handedly brings down an oliphant and
its crew). The fight hardly seems fair: nearly every Greek
spear seems to go through a Trojan’s head or chest or abdomen;
many of the Trojan arrows and spears nick a shoulder or elbow, get
blocked by a shield, or stick harmlessly in some Greek’s studded
belt. Even when the battle does turn the Trojans’
way, Homer does not give us the same level of detail about Hector’s
victories. Yet in some ways almost all the great heroes on both sides
end up tragic or even pathetic, in the sense of inspiring pathos (emotion).
I do not think most of us want to be any of these characters. Why?
(It is not enough to say that it is because they die.)
If you have studied
Greek mythology, you might have learned that Ares is the god of war.
Actually, that is inaccurate. War is too great a part of ancient life
to be covered by one god. Ares is more properly thought of as
the god of battle and of bloodlust. Pallas Athena is equally
associated with war, but she is known more for strategy and skill.
Meanwhile, the Greeks embody other attributes of battle in lesser
deities such as Eris (Strife) and Rout.
Consider the gods’ role in the war and their place in the story.
Why are both so significant? What do the gods’ characters,
behavior, influence, and interference say about Hellenic (Greek) culture
and the way the people perceived and understood the world?
The 20th century philosopher and mystic Simone Weil called Iliad
“The Poem of Force.” In an essay of that name, she
argues, “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the
Iliad is force: force employed by man, force that enslaves
man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work,
at all times, the human spirit is shown by its relationship to force,
as swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could handle,
as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”
Agree or disagree? Why?