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Troy: views & reviews

Homer the Film-maker

Confession: I have not seen the film Troy! I don’t plan to, either.
Reason: I have always felt that reading Homer is like going to the cinema. There are so many cinematographic tricks of which Homer already seems to be the master.

His most famous trick is the flash-back, known to the Romans as beginning in medias res or “in the middle of the story”. No film-goer is going to be upset when the title sequence leads us right into the middle of the story, eventually recapping to explain what is going on. A film-goer enjoys the complications that make extra demands on the brain. So must Homer’s audience have enjoyed them, back in the Bronze Age.

In the Iliad, we plunge into the story of Troy in the ninth year – in fact shortly before the end of the War. As in a James Bond film, we are expected to know broadly the characters and the general situation: what we don’t know is the twists and turns of the plot.

The opening scene of the epic is a violent quarrel between the two most outstanding Greeks at Troy: Agamemnon who is the high-king, and Achilles who is the star fighter. We, the audience, are expected to catch on at once, to enter into this rivalry between the two kinds of power – the official leader and the man with charisma. Within a few lines, we are in the thick of it; only later will the poet fill in some background detail.

The Iliad uses many flash-back tricks to remind us of the full story of the ten-year-war. For example, Book 3 has many verbal references to the original seduction of Helen by Paris, way back in Sparta: and the section will end with a vivid action-replay of that insult to Menelaus’ honour. Aphrodite supernaturally whisks Paris away from death at the hands of his rival: then the two lovers will lie lustfully embraced in their “great carved bed” while poor frustrated Menelaus prowls up and down the battlefield “like a wild beast”, wondering what on earth happened.

Other cinematographic tricks resemble the use of the camera. The poet moves easily from the vast epic view of the battle-field to the close-up and the subtle character study. The changes of scene or of view-point are carefully calculated. For example, again in Book 3, from the solemn preparations for the duel (to decide who gets Helen), we move swiftly into Troy to meet the enigmatic Helen herself. With her and King Priam, we look over the battlements at the Greeks far below, and from that distance we see the characters looking utterly noble whom a minute ago we saw bitterly quarrelling.

To indicate momentous turning points in the plot, the “camera” will linger on objects, for example in the tent of Nestor [Book 11]. Nestor is about to persuade Patroclus to take the action which will lead to his own death, to the death of Hector, of Achilles and ultimately to the fall of Troy. The poet slowly highlights the scene in the tent - a decorated table, on the table a marvellous cup, and in the cup, a drink. The story slows almost to a standstill. The accomplished film-goer will know why.

In Book 4, a more famous example of this can truly be compared to slow-motion: the flight of the arrow which breaks the truce and fatally starts the war again takes two pages to describe, a tour de force.

In the Odyssey, Homer describes the effect on a cultivated audience of the expert story-telling of Odysseus. I feel that he must be writing from his own experience of a successful night when the performance went magically well, the chieftains were pleased, his reputation was enhanced and the takings were good:

So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence,
Held in thrall by the story all through the shadowy chambers.

Isn’t that just the feeling when the lights go up in the cinema and the audience is returned to reality with a jolt after their two hours of make-believe?

Mary Emerson

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