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Troy: views & reviews

The fallout of war

In the Iliad, war is presented as both disastrous and inevitable. It is engineered by gods, but its enthusiastic practitioners are men. The rank and file are very often compared to forces of nature, a forest fire, the tides of the sea, the waves on a cliff, the wind in the grass.

The heroes are the characters to whom we get close: we do see their discouragement when at times they are tired and wounded. We even find out that Achilles finds it tiring to sack cities, and the time comes when he wonders why he does it. At a climactic moment, he declares that a man’s life may be worth more than this. He feels maybe his own life has, after all, more possibilities in it – because you only live once. No Greek hero counts on an afterlife to make sense of the whole thing.

Famously, in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld. Rapturously, he congratulates him on what must be his position as glorious king of the dead. Achilles gloomily answers that the worst position on earth is better than what he now endures. Thus glory is stood on its head.

Whether Achilles has revised or just developed his position in the Iliad is up to each reader to decide. The poet of the Odyssey seems to take a much more negative view of war, gradually decreasing Odysseus’ relish for unnecessary slaughter, till when he hears the tale of his greatest achievement at Troy – the Wooden Horse by which the city was finally taken – all he can do is weep like a conquered woman.

Ultimately in the Odyssey, the war is seen as that which robbed Telemachus of a father and Penelope of a husband, all for the sake of a worthless woman, Helen, who

has unstrung the knees of so many men.

Every reader will respond in their own way to the glory-seeking of the Iliad, the domestic goals of the Odyssey. My own Homeric myth is that an older Homer revised his youthful views with the values of middle age, a soft bed, a square meal and a loving companion.

Mary Emerson

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Trojan horse image