How To Read The Iliad

We’ve all read The Iliad, right? If you haven’t, you should. It’s the first piece of western literature and sets the shape and style of pretty much everything which has been written since. At a little under 3,000 years old, this is something of an achievement. I’ve just re-read it as part of the Literature of Western Myth reading list I posted a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s a brief guide on how to read The Iliad, keeping the essentials of the story and cutting out lots of the waffle. While I love the book, it’s long (waaaay to long) and can be a difficult book to get into (depending on the translation). Below is a list of which of the books (ie: chapters) to read, if you don’t want to read the whole thing, and still capture the essence of the tale.

First of all, read Book 1. This sets ups the plot in the form of the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, leader of the expedition to Troy. Everything in the Greek world of the story is about securing glory and honour. Agamemnon is forced by the gods to give back one of his prizes captured in battle. This loss of prestige cannot be tolerated so he takes the next best prize captured by the army, the Trojan woman Briseis, a prize awarded to Achilles. Now Achilles honour has been trampled into the dust but he has no recourse other than retreating to his encampment and refusing to fight again.

Book 3 introduces the Trojans and talks about the reasons for the war. We see for the first time Hector, the chief warrior on the Trojan side and brother of Paris. We see him in battle against Menalaus (that’s ‘men-a-lay-us’ not ‘men-a-lowse’ as in the movie Troy), husband of Helen, seduced and kidnapped by Paris – the incident which started the whole war with Troy. There’s also a really interesting scene between Aphrodite, Paris and Helen which hammers home the point that the gods are in control of what happens and that all you can hope for is to make the best of the cards you’ve been dealt.

Skip the endless battle scenes to read Book 6. The domestic scenes here are magnificent. We see Hector at home with his wife and family and get to examine the human cost of warfare and life under siege. This lifts the whole story out of the mire of Rambo movies or Sven Hassel novels into another realm altogether. Torn between family and civic duty, personal desire and destiny, Hector becomes perhaps the first three-dimensional character ever written.

Book 9 is key to the whole tale. Here, Agamemnon realises that without Achilles in the thick of battle, the Greek army is just not much chop. They’re not just failing to win objectives like they were earlier but that the tide has turned and the Trojans are slowly pushing them back towards the ships and defeat. He tries to mend his relationship with Achilles who rejects his overtures outright.

Read Book 14 next. This book is fascinating. The story turns here from one about the war and the rift between Achilles and Agamemnon to become a story about Achilles himself. How can he come to terms with the idea that even though he is the son of a goddess, he is mortal and will in due course die? Despite all the greatness he has achieved and the glory he’s won, after hi sdeath it will all be forgotten. Zeus steps in here, by means of prophecy, to give Achilles a choice: either he can live a long life and be forgotten or die early and be remembered forever. In all things, as ever, Zeus is a complete bastard.

Book 16 sees the Greek army forced back to its encampments around the ships which brought them to Troy from various parts of Greece. The Trojans have successfully assault the camps and are sacking the baggage. This is too much for Patroclus, Achilles best mate. He is duty-bound to follw Achilles lead and not take part in the fight but he cannot watch as Greeks are killed around him. After much begging, Achilles relents and allows Patroclus to join the fight. The tide turns and the Trojans are repulsed from the Greek camps but, in the process, Patroclus is killed by Hector.

Achilles snaps. In Book 18, he decides to rejoin the battle – not to fight for Agamemnon but to revenge himself on Hector for killing Patroclus. His decision throws to the winds the agonising about fate and the wounded pride of earlier in the story. Now, rather than punishing Agamemnon for his transgression, Achilles is now solely after Hector’s blood. This book also shows how the gods operate, using humans as pawns in their own games and the internal political machinations on Olympus.

Book 22 shows the fight between Achilles and Hector. Achilles wins the battle – of course – but doesn’t stop there. In his rage, he desecrates the body and doesn’t stop for more than half the chapter despite the urging of Greeks and Trojans alike. Achilles has lost any pretense at being the great culture hero warrior and has transformed himsefl into nothing more than an animal revelling in destruction. The constrast of this behaviour with the tenderness of Patroclus’ funeral in Book 23 is striking. Achilles, like the gods, is a creature of extremes.

Skip the rest of Book 23 which deals with the funeral games, a mini-Olympics in Patroclus’ honour and go straight to the final book.

Book 24 is fascinating. Priam, Hector’s father and the king of Troy, presents himself before Achilles to ask for the return of Hector’s body. It’s only when confronted with the larger consequences of his actions that Achilles softens. Achilles relents and returns the body to Priam. Both men recognise that their are not the masters of their fates that they originally suppsed and that all mortals are at the whim of the gods. Everything mortal perishes – by definition – and the all one can hope for is to make best use of the cards one is dealt.