Sunday, October 16, 2011

Iliadic Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXI

I'm in the middle of prepping a talk on the "Iliad" for a colloquy in November.  This means that I've gone back to my roots as a student of Ancient History.  While I've done some heavier reading on early Greece in the form of Robin Lane Fox's "Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer" and Oswyn Murray's "Early Greece," there's also been an opportunity to try more popular works like Caroline Alexander's "The War That Killed Achilles."  Though Alexander's book is not "The Best of the Achaeans" or "Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Death of Hector," it's still been an enjoyable and thought provoking read.  Alexander's great virtue is that she doesn't treat the "Iliad" as a mere mine of data for other interests but rather seeks to engage the text on its own terms in an effort to gain real wisdom.

This approach reminds me quite a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien's treatment of "Beowulf" in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  In that essay, Tolkien compares the Beowulf poet to a man who inherits a piece of land on which is sprawling complex of ruins.  The man gathers these ruins and adds to them in order to build a magnificent tower.  After the man dies, others come and complain that the building of the tower has destroyed the purity of the ruins and decide that it would be best to tear it down.  What they fail to realize, as Tolkien points out, is that the man built the tower because from its pinnacle he could catch a glimpse of the sea.  This parable applies equally well to the "Iliad."  So often scholars come to Homer only for what they can get out of him; a scrap of Mycenaean culture, a glimpse into Dark Age trade networks, a buried fragment of Hittite myth.  All of that is valid, but it misses the real point; for centuries, men and women have read the "Iliad" because it spoke to the profound truths of the human condition.  In Tolkien's metaphor, they read it because it showed them the sea.

I may not agree with everything Alexander says and "The War that Killed Achilles" is not on a scholarly level with the books above mentioned.  I wrote my thesis on Homeric tropes in Classical literature and as such I did my fair share of strip mining the blind bard and am prepared to defend my right to.  Nevertheless, I have to say that in the final analysis Alexander's work gets my resounding recommendation.  It is a reminder to all of us with scholarly agendas that while we are out quibbling over minutia Homer is trying to show us Life.    

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