Beyond the Ruins of Ilion: Rethinking the Story of the Iliad
In the course of the twentieth century – that ‘short century of extremes’ as Hobsbawm termed it –, a major icon of Western culture, the poet Homer, crashed from the pedestal upon which he had been placed by so many generations. Even the piece that is often cited as the best short account of the Iliad, Simone Weil’s Second World War essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’, is very much the product of a period blighted by violence, war and desolation, bleakness and misery. Max Weber’s characterization of modernity as an age of disenchantment could not have been more accurate. The twenty-first century may not herald dramatic change (Tony Judt’s recent characterization of the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall as ‘the years the locusts ate’ bites into any sense of triumphalism); nevertheless, we are well placed to survey the way in which approaches to Homer in the past century, partly conditioned by the context, systematically misconstrued the Iliad. This paper works from a survey of twentieth-century scholarship to consider the narrative structure of the Iliad as a subtle and sophisticated shaping of the story of the fate of Troy. By exploring the unrecognized values disclosed by a narrative that moves beyond triumph and despair, the paper aims to suggest new directions for Homeric studies and to show how the epic meets that fundamental need which the twentieth century ultimately rediscovered: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’.
Keywords: Ilion, Iliad, Troy, Homer, Narrative, Ancient Greek Values
Dr Michael Lynn-George
Associate Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta