Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Troy and Other Ten-Year Problems

There's a conundrum I've been puzzling over for, ironically, ten years. I have never been able to figure it out. And it's a little embarrassing, as a fan of mythology, not to have a good reason for it. But nevertheless, it stands.

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.

But despite the fact that many of its main characters are morally deplorable creatures who whine, mope, and pet their own egos, and despite the fact that the Odyssey is a far more thoughtful and touching character study... I like the Iliad better.

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.

There's really no comparison with Odysseus. He's charismatic, brilliant, fast-thinking, and good at what he does. (Which is everything.) He knows exactly what he's worth, but unlike Achilles or Paris or any of the other entitled "heroes" of the Iliad, he doesn't sit around waiting for the world to give it to him. He goes after it, and if he fails the first time, he comes back with a better plan.

Calypso Takes Pity on Odysseus,
Henry Justice Ford
And oh yeah - he fails sometimes. Big time. He is the only man on his flagship (at least; he took eleven others to Troy) to make it back to Ithaca; that's one lousy rate of retention. He dozes off among his suspicious men, leaving Aeolus' bag of winds carelessly unguarded. Worst of all, he basically gives his address and phone number to an enraged and blinded Cyclops whose father rules the sea, right before he starts off on a long sea voyage. But he pays the price for those failures. He loses the men whose safety is in his keeping; he spends ten years trying to get home; he nearly dies about a million times. And he learns. By the time he gets back home, he's able (with some help from Athena) to diffuse a civil war in the making. He has the best character arc of anyone in Greek mythology.

But I confess it: when I read the Odyssey, I was bored.

Telemachus Arming, Luigi Bienaime
Maybe it's because Odysseus' adventures have crossed so deeply into popular culture that I already knew the whole story. The suspense of his escape from Polyphemus, the seductive threat of Circe, the innocent relief of Nausicaa and the Phoenician episode, all lost their full impact because I already knew how it ended. "Okay, Odysseus, you stabbed the Cyclops in his one eye. Good for you. Can you tell me something new, please?" (Full credit, by the way, to the d'Aulaires, who valiantly refrained from spoiling the Odyssey. That being said, I would have LOVED to read a d'Aulaire version.) What did make an impression on me were the Telemachus side plot and the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. Telemachus surprised me just as Aeneas did; I kind of knew he was there somewhere, but I hadn't expected him to be
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
Really, who does that? Who paints a masterpiece of how art sucks, or compiles a complete and working investment portfolio illuminating all the flaws of Wall Street? The guts and the vision to decry war while writing the war story astounded me. People who dismiss the death lists and the catalogue of ships completely miss the point. For chapter after chapter, the Iliad sets you up with all the glorious claptrap, applying epithets to the war leaders, giving us gorgeous details like the red bows of the Ithacan fleet, the pathetic offering of three ships from Nireus the pretty boy, and Ajax of Salamis' seven-layer shield covered with bronze.

Hector Brought Back to Troy, artist unknown
And then they die. Then they all pour onto the beach and start fighting, and we see all the men who die in their last moments. "The end of death covered over his eyes and nostrils." "The spear-point went right through [his helmet] and smashed the bone, and all his brains were spattered inside, and the man brought down in his fury." "He shrieked as the life breathed from him, and fell screaming in the dust, and his spirit flitted away." These are visceral, claustrophobic moments, rendered with sympathy for the dying and an implicit condemnation of the reason they died. It happens over and over. The Iliad is relentless. It will trick you into thinking you're reading something golden and glorious, and then it'll throw a chapter of death lists in your face and dare you to believe, after all that, that war is a good thing.

I had no idea. And I could not put the thing down.

Ulysses and the Sirens, Roman mosaic, 3rd century CE
The Odyssey, in comparison, is structurally far simpler: it's a quest, told with unusual timing but still straightforward. Odysseus starts at Point A, zigzags through a maze of adventures, and ends up at Point B. The Iliad starts exactly where it ends: two great nations, both with admirable and appalling people, destroying each other. There's no journey, no revelation, no catharsis. Achilles manages to find his humanity in the end, but that's a hollow victory, because we all know he too is soon to die; his emotional progress matters not a jot. Come the next day, these flawed and brave and blind people we've come to know so well are going to go back to that beach and keep killing each other. The Odyssey is the emotional arc of three complicated characters, disguised as a simple story; the Iliad is a message disguised as a series of episodes.

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy, Domenico Tiepolo
And I have no reason for why I like one better than the other. The secrets that both were hiding blew me away. They're both seminal pieces of Western culture; I wouldn't want to live in a world without them. But the one that moves me most is the story of despair at human nature, not the uplifting and adventurous yarn. Odysseus is the best of all traveling companions, but he's only one man. The Iliad tells me hard truths about human nature, using beautiful language to create horrific images. And in that very act, it affirms the good as well as the bad in humanity: no matter how low we sink, there will always be voices like Homer's, to tell us with such blunt grace what we're doing wrong.


  1. Achilles = Ryan Lochte.

    Also, we all know you didn't like The Odyssey as much because there aren't any strong female characters. Don't lie.

    Blog Post: Circe vs. Calypso (who f***s with Odysseus more/better). Title: The Baddest Bitch.

    1. Oh my god, you're right. Ryan Lochte IS a latter-day Achilles: arrogant, annoying, never delivers when the team needs him. Does that mean that Michael Phelps is Hector, and we're living in an alternate universe where Troy won?

      But the Odyssey lacking awesome women? Please. Penelope? Nausicaa? Freaking Athena? Any one of them could take on all the women in the Iliad combined, and come out the winner. All together, they're like a juggernaut of badass civilizing femininity. The best the Iliad can do for female characters is Helen delivering one smackdown, Hera getting naked, and Aphrodite being ineffectually protective and vicariously boning Paris through Helen. And they're all shown purely through the lens of their sexual appeal and availability, whereas the women of the Odyssey get to be people, and the only one who gets naked on-camera, as it were, is the mid-forties married one. The Odyssey is way more enlightened when it comes to women.

      Calypso. No contest. Circe is upfront and fair about their fight and gives him directions home after a year; Calypso just stuffs cotton in her ears and sings, "La la la, can't hear you crying, now come do the sex with me again."

    2. Clearly you've forgotten the part where Clytemnestra exists. And kills her husband. In a bathtub. With a fishing net. Clytemnestra > any female in the Odyssey. Also, Cassandra? Super interesting. You could do a whole blog on Clytemnestra living in Helen's shadow. And compare her to some fairy tale where that happens.

      Cressida too.

    3. True facts. I wasn't counting the ones not in the poems themselves, but yeah, Clytemnestra is a terrifying badass. I'll take the women in the Odyssey for role-model material any day, but there are tons of women with incredible stories orbiting the Trojan War. The ones with direct contact with the war tend, probably unsurprisingly, to be the most brutal and/or alarming; faced with spear-wielding bloodthirsty soldiers, they're forced to do some scary stuff to survive. (Or not. Oh, Cassandra.) Cressida in particular, as you pointed out, is a super-interesting case.

      But give Penelope credit: she held her husband's kingdom together for twenty freaking years, kept every influential and ambitious lord in limbo for at least half that time without ever offering mortal offense, and raised a damn cool son in her free time. And she pulled it off without ever resorting to murder. Clytemnestra may be a very impressive sprinter, but Penelope's the goddamn marathon runner of all time.

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  3. "It will trick you into thinking you're reading something golden and glorious, and then it'll throw a chapter of death lists in your face and dare you to believe, after all that, that war is a good thing."

    I know you don't like Achilles, but I like him for this exact reason. Achilles knows he can be golden and glorious. But he also knows the cost of it, and he doesn't know if it's worth it. I think it's absolutely key that ultimately, he doesn't fight for glory or to be remembered like his prophecy promises, but for the death of Patroclus. What's worth fighting for? What's worth dying for? What's it like to be supernaturally awesome at war, but not want to fight?

    Anyway, I'm not saying you have to like him or anything, but Achilles is definitely the center of a lot of the big and intriguing questions of the Illiad. Personally, he kind of breaks my heart.

    Odysseus will always be my favorite too, though - I think as Americans we're just predisposed to his underdogness and ingenuity. <3