You know those two epic poems that provide some of the most basic foundations for Western society? The Iliad and the Odyssey? Well, I've read them both. I like them both a lot. I especially like Odysseus, the quintessential lovable trickster. He and Nestor provide the most reliable voices of reason in the Iliad, which makes it great fun to watch him really act out in the Odyssey. I don't really like any of the Iliad's characters as much as I like - no, let's do this right, love - Odysseus.
Let's be clear. My favorite character in the Iliad alternates between Hector, Diomedes, and Aeneas, depending on the mood I'm in that hour. Menelaus doesn't get enough screen time, Agamemnon's obnoxious, Helen's underused, Zeus is a bitch, and do not get me started on Achilles. I cannot with the glorification of a whiny self-absorbed mama's boy. I just cannot. And the characters I do like? Well, Hector is Hector, i.e. Living Awesome, but sometimes the sheer wow factor gets overwhelming. (Is there anything wrong with him? Anything at all?) Aeneas, to my surprise, turned out to be a very active participant in the war; before I read the Iliad, I thought of him as the sequel guy, and I enjoyed seeing him kick ass before Dido and Virgil got hold of him. And Diomedes... okay, he has basically one chapter, but in that chapter he makes Achilles look like a wuss, gives Aphrodite the bladed bitch-slap we all wanted her to get, and sends the freaking god of war crying home to Dad, in what is arguably the funniest scene in literary antiquity. Including everything in Lysistrata. If you can only have one chapter in which to shine, this is the one to have.
|Calypso Takes Pity on Odysseus,|
Henry Justice Ford
But I confess it: when I read the Odyssey, I was bored.
|Telemachus Arming, Luigi Bienaime|
|Odysseus and Penelope, John Flaxman|
energetic and enterprising and very much a worthy son to Odysseus. And even though I knew the plot summary of that reunion, I was utterly unprepared for the exquisite language it's written in, and the aching sweep of love and shock and joy that carries it forward. When I read the Odyssey, I read Penelope's speech to Odysseus aloud. I can't help it. There are sentences that exist to be spoken. I had thought of that scene as the standard capper to the hero's journey; I had never envisioned it as the emotional climax of lovers estranged for twenty years. That scene broke me in all the wonderful ways literature is supposed to break you.
But no one spoiled the Iliad for me. I mean, I knew Hector died, but I didn't know Diomedes was a badass, or that there was so much divine machination, or that Helen gave Paris a verbal emasculation that rivals Lady Macbeth. No one told me about the agony of the fight over Patroclus' body. I was unprepared for the scene where Priam begs Achilles for his son's corpse. And most of all, I was stunned to find that the war epic to end all war epics is actually anti-war.
|Achilles Triumphant, Howard David Johnson|
|Hector Brought Back to Troy, artist unknown|
I had no idea. And I could not put the thing down.
|Ulysses and the Sirens, Roman mosaic, 3rd century CE|
|The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy, Domenico Tiepolo|