Currently, I am researching academic articles for a reference volume about epics and I was in a discussion about the Iliad with a friend. In the middle of that discussion I realized that it had been a number of years since I had read the Iliad and I was speaking from memories of an updated fictional novel about the Trojan War that I had read. It suddenly confused me and feeling a little sheepish I decided that I needed to reread the Iliad.
Wow! I forgot how truly amazing the Iliad is. It is not simply a recounting of the Trojan War. It talks about different aspects of strife and begins with a dispute over a woman who was given to Agamemnon as war booty. Her father tries to ransom her and Agamemnon refuses. Chryses goes to Apollo and asks that a plague be visited upon the Greeks. To stop the plague, Agamemnon has to give up Chryseis. He is not pleased with this idea and despite that he tries to convince Chryses that she is as important to him as his own wife Clymenestra, he then wants Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, to replace Chryseis. Achilles complies because Minerva tells him to. He then asks his mother Thetis to intervene and make sure the Greeks get solidly beaten while he withdraws his troops. It is more complicated than an afternoon soap. And much more poignant.
Things that I have picked up from the Iliad so far are that in telling stories one can choose where to begin. The Iliad begins after the Greeks have beseiged Troy for nine years. The subplots that are put forth give information and perspective on the main plot, make the story interesting, and advance the themes. There is also a great deal of information that is cultural information that is in the background of the Iliad that is assumed that the reader/listener would know and bring to a reading of the Iliad. This unstated information helps to draw the reader in and tighten up the epic. It relies on readers/listeners knowing that Troy has no patron god or goddess because the Trojans didn’t keep their bargain with Poseidon when he helped to build the walls of Troy. It relies on readers knowing that Eris the goddess of strife threw out the golden apple inscribed with the words “for the fairest”. The epic utilizes cultural assumptions like that the intervention of the gods and goddesses is not always a good thing and that fate cannot be averted.
All of this raises questions in my mind to consider when I am writing a piece of fiction. Questions like the following: Whose point of view would be the best one to tell the story from in the most natural manner to get across the subplots and themes that I want to address in order to make the story the most interesting? How could I use the prior knowledge of a reader
who resides in the current time period to cleverly build the world of a future time? What kind of things could I leave unstated and yet the reader would project into a story?
I am still working my way through the Iliad and thinking about the way themes, action, and characters are depicted.