Homeric storytelling (1): wrath

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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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