The Iliad in a Nutshell

Achilles and the body of Patroclus
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Sing, Muse, of Achilles’ anger and its devastation…and of the will of Zeus which was accomplished.

The opening lines of Homer’s epic The Iliad say it all. In these first few words, the Poet betrays his purpose and unpacks the deepest meaning of his work. 

He begins with a prayer to his Muse, the goddess of creativity, requesting the grace he needs to tell the story well and honestly. In doing so, he is acknowledging that creativity is a gift of the gods and that without their supernatural help (grace) the Poet or Artist can achieve nothing. His work is therefore a work of piety, as well as a work of poetry. He desires to tell the truth and seeks the help of divine intercession to enable him to do so.  

The truth he intends to tell is not factual or historical truth because he is writing of the stuff of legend and of events which happened several centuries earlier. He will, therefore, tell his tale using the poetic license necessary to tell a good story, weaving fact with fiction into a seamless narrative fabric. No, the truth he means to tell is not historical truth (facts), but moral truth. He is going to present to us, in powerful dramatic form, an important moral lesson, holding up the “mirror to man” which, as Tolkien suggested, is one of the main purposes of fairy stories.

The moral he is going to present is that anger, the cankered fruit of pride, is destructive and that it has devastating consequences, not merely for Achilles, the prideful man, full of wrath, but on countless other people, the innocent victims of Achilles’ sin. Thus, in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, Achilles’ “doomed and ruinous” anger “caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the undergloom, leaving so many dead men—carrion for dogs and birds.” Sin does not merely harm the sinner; it harms countless others also. Actions have consequences and bad actions have bad consequences. This is Homer’s lesson. It is, however, not his only lesson. We forget, at our peril, that this connection between immoral behavior and destruction is not merely fatalistic but providential. It is, as Homer is at pains to point out, “the will of Zeus which was accomplished.” 

As Achilles’ rage runs riot, riding roughshod over his reason as much as it rides roughshod over his neighbors (both his friends and enemies), he incurs the wrath of God. In following his own prideful passion for revenge, rather than the path of virtue, Achilles brings down the judgment of Zeus upon himself. His destruction is, therefore, not merely the workings of blind fate but of divine providence.

The theology that underpins Homer’s epic is of course pagan. It is intriguing, however, that Homer’s polytheism seems to be drifting in a monotheistic direction. The power of Zeus does not merely exceed the power of all the other gods, taken individually, it exceeds the power of all the other gods combined. When he makes this claim to effective omnipotence to the assembly of gods, none contradicts him. This does not stop the gods conspiring against Zeus’ will but, irrespective of such ultimately futile efforts, it is his will and not theirs which comes to pass. There are even hints of Zeus’ omniscience when he informs Hera, after she had beguiled him to sleep in the hope of circumventing his will, of all that will happen in the future of the war, his prophetic words becoming reality as the story unfolds. If Zeus knows the future as fact, his knowledge is not constrained by time but transcends it.

Homer waxes metaphorical in the penultimate book of the epic, revealing his overarching moral in the events surrounding the disputed outcome of the chariot race, the resolution of which displays a magnanimity of spirit sorely lacking in the actions of the war. The disputes arising over the alleged immoral actions during the race are analogous with the immoral actions of the key characters in the epic as a whole, the chariot race serving metaphorically as a microcosmic representation of the war itself. The message is clear enough. If Paris, Helen, Agamemnon, Achilles, and others had displayed the same honest and magnanimous spirit as that displayed in the resolution of the disputes after the race, the war could have been avoided and the injustices resolved without the hatred and the bloodshed.

It is curious that The Iliad does not end as it had begun with the focus on Achilles and his destructive and ultimately self-destructive anger. This would have been the symmetrically formal way of concluding the epic. The absence of such an expected denouement is evidently due to Homer’s wishing to deflate Achilles’ pride by ending his epic with a litany of praise for “blameless” Hector. It is the heroism of the innocent victim of the sins of others, of Paris’ lustful elopement with Helen and Achilles’ hateful anger, who is lionized at the epic’s conclusion. Homer does not glorify war, and still less does he glorify the sin that causes war or the pride and anger that fuels it. He glorifies the man of courage, albeit a man who is not without his own flaws and weaknesses, who lays down his life for his wife and family, and for his people.    

Such is the moral that Homer teaches. He is not a Christian and the god he worships is not the Christian God. Yet he believes that his talents as a poet are God-given gifts and he prays to the giver of the gifts for the grace to use them well. He then employs these gifts to show us that the sins of pride and anger are self-destructive, and destructive of others also, and that such sin will not go unpunished by a god who commands that men live virtuously. He is, therefore, a writer of the highest order that Christians, and indeed all men of good will, should feel comfortable calling a friend and ally. 

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature in a nutshell.]

[Image Credit: Achilles and the body of Patroclus by Nikolai Ge [Wikimedia Commons])

By

Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book is Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019). His website is jpearce.co.

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