World literature and art record a great number of works that portray warfare. These include stories from the Medieval Period which usually tell about the gallantry of King Arthur’s knights, the gruesome holocaust films that present the struggles of the Jews inside the German camps, the mind-stirring films about the Vietnam war, revealing the meaninglessness of war, up to the Japanese anime cartoons that feature ninja characters fighting for justice and honor. Above all these stories of war, however, one story occupies the highest niche in presenting chivalry and culture: the Iliad by Homer (Fagles 1990).
With its depiction of the courage and strength of ancient Greek characters, together with other literary elements employed, “The Iliad” is undoubtedly the greatest war story ever told in the history of world literature. Analyses of the plot and themes reveal an embodied vision of the Greeks—their attitudes, culture, and heroism. Set in the ancient Mycenaean Greece, the narrative epic tells about the last days of the Trojan war, the infamous yet fictitious war between the Trojans and the Achaeans.
Considering authorship of this great epic, along with its sequel, “The Odyssey,” which is ascribed to the blind poet Homer, readers expect to read with great difficulty and unfamiliarity with the Greek culture. However, in the modern translation by Fagles et al. , the author provides an easy read, yet retains the essential elements of the narrative poem. This version allows modern-day readers to read the text as they would a drama, or a film script. The plot basically revolves around the theme of honor.
In the midst of the Trojan War, the great warrior, Achilles expresses his desire to withdraw from fighting due to Agamemnon’s recall of Briseis, the woman Achilles takes as his prize from the war. The former’s intention causes Achilles to feel dishonored. He then summons his mother Thetis, saying, “Mother! You gave me life, short as that life will be, so at least Olympian Zeus, thundering up on high should give me honor—” (l. 416-19). He asks his mother to summon Zeus to avenge his loss.
To express his rage, Achilles refuses to fight the war, which causes a great loss among the Achaeans, despite the virulent fighting done by Achaeans’ commanders, including Diomedes. These events establish the important role that Achilles plays in the battle, that without him, the Achaeans are defenseless and bereft of the gods’ favor. With this importance is the emphasis on honor and pride attached to his character. The involvement of the gods, especially of Zeus makes the story more enticing, and the elements more colorful.
When Thetis summons Zeus to accept Achilles’ request, he explains that he will be in conflict with the other gods, especially with Hera. This makes the readers realize the important role that Achilles plays in the story. In particular, the bowing of Zeus to Thetis, with the “dark brows and deathless locks…pouring down from the thunderhead of the great immortal king” causes the “giant shock wave [to] spread through all Olympus” (l. 632-35), foreshadows the great tragedy that awaits the Achaeans. Moreover, the human experience developed in the epic also adds to the tragedy of the heroes.
Emphasizing the dilemma of losing experienced by Achilles, the epic also presents the attitude of the Greeks towards love and sacrifice. Achilles’ refusal to give up Briseis demonstrates the dilemma he suffers from, and explains his attitude in losing. Due to his great love for Briseis, he refuses to help the Achaeans any longer when Agamemnon decrees to have the woman back. In the same way, his loss of Patroclus, his great friend, makes him relent from his earlier position. The dilemma of losing his loved ones thus makes Achilles decide whether to fight or not, which consequently foretells the destiny of the Achaeans.
The grand finale, which tells Hector’s funeral, is another element that makes the epic grand. It reminds us of the importance of heroism to the Greeks, and their regard for man’s courage in the face of adversity. On the one hand, like every war story that presents men’s chivalry, the “Iliad” compares with other war stories written. On the other hand, its supernatural elements that illustrate the actions and decisions of the gods, the idea of tragedy caused by human frailty, and the elevated style of the narrative epic makes “The Iliad,” along with “The Odyssey” incomparable and probably the greatest war story ever made.