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Essays on Homer's Iliad

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These essays, prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), are in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released August 2005.

For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston

 

INTRODUCTORY COMMENT

The essays listed below, which are a restatement of the argument laid out in The Ironies of War, all deal with aspects of Homer's Iliad.  They may be read in any order, although the reader should probably be familiar with the introductory note immediately below and the first essay in order to understand the central thrust of each of the others.

Quotations from Homer's poem in these essays are from the on-line translation available through the following link Iliad. And all line numbers refer to that edition (for the reader's convenience I have also, in most cases, included an approximate line reference for the Greek text, which is given in square brackets). A bibliography for all the essays is given in the final section.

The essays here are a systematic attempt to explore the Iliad as a great literary masterpiece, to see what it is holding up to us in  modern North America as a vision of experience which can illuminate important aspects of our own lives. Hence, they pay little attention to any contextual matters, like Homer's identity, the facts of Homer's own times, the treatment of Homer by classical Greek traditions, and other historical issues. The assumption here is that this is a vitally important poem for contemporary readers because it speaks directly to their own age, not because it offers some interesting insights into an old, long-forgotten, and irrelevant civilization. Those readers seeking such a historical treatment of the work should look elsewhere.

The central claim coordinating these essays is that Homer's vision is a fatalistic view of war as a condition of life, that the best and worst human experiences arise out of this condition, and that there is no way this condition will change. The vision is thoroughly ironic, and thus there is no easy way to sum it up with a simple moral judgment. In fact, the power of this poem stems from its ability to challenge our faith in such judgments, in other words, from its power to disturb us, to complicate our understanding, to make us re-examine some of our most cherished beliefs.

This approach to the poem thus seeks to counter both the long tradition in Homer scholarship of treating the poem merely (or primarily) as a historical document and the tendency of much Homer criticism, still very much alive today, of neutralizing the challenge of the Iliad by interpreting it to fit the long moral traditions of a providential universe governed by a benevolent deity or reason or progress or some other optimistic hope that the brutalities of life are part of a consoling moral order.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Essay 1: Homer's War
Essay 2: Homer's Similes: Nature as Conflict
Essay 3: The Gods
Essay 4: The Heroic Code
Essay 5: Arms and the Men
Essay 6: Hector and Achilles
Essay 7: Homer and the Modern Imagination
Essay 8: On Modern English Translations of the Iliad
 List of Works Cited

 

 

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