Homeric storytelling (1): wrath


What an intriguing cast of characters this thread on story-telling is becoming: Scheherazade, Ira Glass, Herodotus and Truman Capote, the Grimm Brothers… I like this mixing of high-brow and populist; grown-up and children’s; oral, audio and written; ancient and contemporary…. After all, it’s all story-telling. So let’s move on to Homer.

What makes the Iliad (and, in the next post, the Odyssey) such an enduring story?

For the time being (because you’ve not yet dissuaded me), I will continue to apply my emerging theory: the Iliad is a great story because it has:

  • simplicity
  • momentum and
  • universality.

What could be simpler than to tell your audience what your story is about in the very first word! The first word in the original Greek is menis (as in mania), which means wrath. The wrath of Achilles and of all mankind is what the Iliad is about. The Trojan War is “merely” the backdrop.

We meet the characters: Achilles and Agamemnon, childish and vain, but awesome to behold. Here is our hero and he is … sulking! We get tense. This isn’t good. Something awful will happen. But what?

Then, a delay. And what a build-up. We have looong sections listing all the heroes and ships that sailed to Troy. To us this is boring, but to the ancients this was an occasion for cheering, because each and every Greek was waiting for his ancestor to be named. The list signaled the grandness and the inclusiveness of what was about to unfold.

Then, action: Gory, individualized fighting, with spears piercing through breasts and swords cutting off limbs. The excitement and horror build.

Before long, we are disgusted. Achilles takes things too far. He defaces Hector’s corpse, and one just doesn’t do this. We sympathize with both heroes (Achilles = wrath; Hector = duty) and both sides in the war at this point. We suffer as humans, because we see how wrath has destroyed civilized behavior.

And this is the thought that gives the story universality. We come down from the thrill of the violence and are exhausted. We yearn for civility. And we get it. The Greeks stage funeral games for Achilles’ fallen friend, and now at last we see conflicts resolved without violence. It is as though everybody, even Achilles had learned.

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6 thoughts on “Homeric storytelling (1): wrath

  1. Wrath is so 2600 years ago. I have not read the Iliad or the Odyssey. I wish that I could engage and dissuade you just for sport. I could read the ‘cliff notes’ but I’d be missing the telling of the story. BUT, in the spirit of The History Boys, I’ll lie and try to say something interesting. If the Iliad was handed down in the oral tradition, to what extent can we credit Homer as Greatest Story Teller?

    If there are really a finite number of stories, can we list them? I’ll start. 1) boy meets girl.

    And in the coming days, 787 billion happinesses will come to the house of Obama.

  2. You’re a better man than most of us, Mr Crotchety. I think Wrath is so 2009. You should have been at this four-way stop sign that I’ve just survived….
    (Is it me, or are the angriest warriors always the soccer moms in SUVs?)

    Anway: wrath > incivility > breakdown > yearning for civility = Iliad today

    Homer and the oral tradition: Did you object to the post on the Grimm Brothers? If not, why object to Homer. The Grimms wrote down oral traditions. Shakespeare wrote down other people’s stories (Mark Antony from Plutarch, eg). You see where I’m going with this?

  3. Yes. I agree. Wrath is so 2009, but the word seems more dignified than what we experience. Wrath is murky today. There’s no dueling, no honor – just this elaborate passive-aggressive f-you very much. Our town is a good place to observe this. I’M MORE RELAXED THAN YOU! NO, YOU GO AHEAD! YOU WERE AT THAT STOP SIGN BEFORE ME! OK, FINE. I’LL GO. Then you watch the mini van with one bumper sticker that says Obama and the other that says that says ‘practice random acts of kindness…’ drive away. Over time, wrath, like many things, becomes better defined (yet, perhaps, farther from that which the original data would lead one to conclude). This is independent of the story teller but inherent to the telling and re-telling of the story. (maybe that’s what you’re trying to tell us). I also see another attribute of a heroic story; dignity (for our hero) > civility (for us). We can’t just write about civility, but we can give our hero dignity. He’s more dignified so we’re more civilized. I’m thinking that there must be an analogy to a funny story. That is, people will say, “one day we’ll look back on this and laugh.” So, when we’re standing among a pile of bloody bodies and limbs, we might say, “history will judge us favorably.”

  4. The Odyssey is a neat story to teach to 9th graders.
    Unfortunately, kids these days see a lot of wrath from Road Wrath to Self Wrath..

    I would try my best to augment the discussion from a the mid-life point of view.

    We always had a great deal of fun and conversation when we arrived home, seasick, to those suitors!

    Those suitors crack me up.

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