Bad News from Troy
September 3, 2002
It was going to be a short, easy war. King Menelaus
of Sparta had a domestic problem: his beautiful wife Helen had run off
with his handsome guest, the Trojan prince Paris. So he called in his
chips, summoning other Greek rulers all former suitors of Helen
who owed him their fealty to help him recover her. Surely Troy
a rich, civilized but isolated and effete city could not
withstand their combined forces for long. It would soon see reason and
give up Helen.
But Troy proved
unexpectedly stubborn and tough. The war stretched on for a decade before
it finally fell. The Greek victory came at enormous cost, and the lives of
the victors had been disrupted in myriad ways nobody had imagined.
The Trojan War, with
all its dark lessons about the ways of Fate, is the central subject of
ancient Greek literature, beginning with its first known and greatest
work, the Iliad. The tremendous epic covers only a few
weeks near the end of the war, artfully recapitulating and foreshadowing
all that had come before and all that would follow. The
Odyssey, Greek and Roman tragedy, Virgils
Aeneid, and even Medieval literature would add many
episodes and variations to the basic story. So would Shakespeare, Racine,
and later dramatists; the story has a permanent fascination, even in ages
of far more devastating wars.
knows whether there really was a Trojan War. The Greeks assumed that it was a
historical fact; later Europeans doubted that Troy had even existed;
modern archaeology has proved that it did, but cant determine
whether it was destroyed by war or other causes.
mystery of the Trojan War is matched by the mystery of the poet called Homer. Did a
single poet write the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Were they originally written down at all, or were they composed by an
illiterate bard or bards and copied later? Were both poems the work of
can only surmise the answers. The Greeks generally believed that Homer was a
single blind poet, possibly from the island of Chios, but these are only
legends. The scholars agree with the ancients that the Iliad
was probably earlier than the Odyssey, which, after all,
concerns Odysseuss postwar wanderings. If so, it is one of the few
sequels in literature that is worthy of its predecessor.
That may be the best argument for single authorship. It seems
unlikely that two colossal poets should live so close in time, using the
same language, unless they were Siamese twins. I dont read Greek,
so I cant pretend to judge the subtleties. But even reading
translations of both poems, Im struck by the consistency of the
world they present. One has the overwhelming impression of a single poet
extending his own story over many years.
No doubt the legends of
the Trojan War were already old when Homer took them up. But he put his
own stamp on them in the Iliad, then again in the
Odyssey. The later poem assumes the earlier in every
important detail. Many of the same characters, especially the gods,
reappear and behave in the same ways. If the two great poems had been the
work of two great poets, the second would have put a different and
distinct stamp on his poem; there would be no doubt of separate
authorship. Thats my two cents worth, anyway.
For a marvelous
discussion of Homer and all these associated questions, one can hardly do
better than to read Bernard Knoxs long introduction to Robert
Fagless acclaimed translation of the Iliad (Penguin).
Not only is Knox a renowned classical scholar; his literary appreciation of
the poem is marvelously sensitive and profound. Even better is Simone
Weils stunning essay The Iliad: The Poem of
Knox and Weil leave no
doubt that Homer, whoever he was, remains, and will always remain, truly
timeless. Their praise is not the platitudinous compliment customary in
salutes to the classics. They really show that Homer has something to tell
us a permanently disturbing insight into the roles of force,
slavery, and death in human existence, expressed in graphic yet poignant
images of brutal violence. If literature is news that stays
new, Homer will always be bad news for optimists and reformers.