I am rereading "The Iliad." You remember that epic about the Trojan War: it stars the beautiful Helen, fierce Achilles, the wily Odysseus, and a cast of thousands, both mortal and immortal.
The ancient tale was composed by Homer nearly 3,000 years ago and was reputedly based on a real conflict fought some 500 years earlier. Are we talking irrelevant here or what?
That's what I thought in 8th grade, when I was forced to read it — by my mother, no less, who also was my English teacher. In 10th grade I was compelled to read portions of it again, this time in Latin (Fortunately, I believe the Supreme Court has since ruled that to be cruel and unusual punishment).
Just try this scenario on for size. A guy named Paris steals Helen from a Greek king and takes her home to Troy (in what is today Turkey). The Greeks get in their funny-looking boats and sail across Aegean Sea to get her back (Remember: hers was "the face that launched a thousand ships").
Now get this: they fight over this woman for 10 years, back and forth, to and fro, thither and yon etc. until the Greeks pretend to give up and sail away, leaving behind a huge wooden horse with soldiers hiding inside. The Trojans pulled the "gift" inside their city walls. At night the Greeks come out of the horse, open the gates of the city to their comrades, who have returned, and they proceed to cut and slash their way to victory, at last.
It's a plot worthy of "Rocky XII" or "Rambo V." Homer, in fact, did pen a sequel, "The Odyssey."
In 8th grade no matter how many times my mother insisted this was a classic, I wasn't buying. My opinion has since changed, but let me explain my initial reaction to the Trojan War story.
For starters, the notion of fighting and dying for a decade over a pretty face seemed off the wall. Surely she must have at least been the Playmate of the Millennium. Next, the Greek soldiers who were forever whining about their home and hearth across the waves had comely concubines in their tents. This state of affairs included King Menelaus, hubby of Helen, the purported cause of the ruckus.
As crazy as the Greeks seemed for their willingness to die in droves over another man's eminently replaceable wife, the Trojans made them look positively sane. Paris freely enjoyed the fruits of his comrades bloody sacrifice on his behalf, but wouldn't fight a lick himself, except the one lonely time his big brother Hector embarrassed him into it.
Yet his fellow countrymen did not tell Paris to "get with the bloody program or send Helen packing on the next trireme." Incredible.
Frankly, I thought Homer was the nuttiest of the whole lot for basing an entire book on this preposterous yarn. But now I'm not so sure. Perhaps what he was getting at by using Helen as the causa belli was that men, or enough men are crazy, that they will fight over nothing, that they are looking for an excuse to commit mayhem.
And while appearing to glorify battle, Homer, in fact, presented it in all of its grim and gory reality. Soldiers did horrible, slow deaths. Just listen: "Meges struck him on the sinew behind the head, and the blade cut his tongue at the root and went through the teeth. He fell in the dust, biting hard on the cold metal."
At the end of a day's battle, the "field of glory" was littered with the gruesome dead, their blood, limbs and brains scattered about. The surviving combatants had to make camp well away from the rotting flesh. The sadness that the living feel for their fallen comrades is fuel for the next horrible battle. Talk of quitting is silenced by those who say the dead cannot be allowed to have died in vain, or by inscrutable gods who inspire men to fight on against all reason.
Homer would not be surprised by the Iran-Iraq War. It might as well have been fought over a woman, or a spool of thread for that matter. He would recognize Rambo as a latter day Achilles, albeit a one-dimensional and infinitely less intelligent copy. The ancient author also would appreciate our craving for nuclear spears and shields: we have only found new ways to kill one another, something our species always has excelled at.
My mother was right: "The Iliad" is worth reading, even rereading. It shows us how far we have come in three millennia.