I was a nerd as a child. A reader and a bit of a loner, I spent time in a small public library on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn, walking there or riding my bike the half mile or so from my house.
Most of the guys in the neighborhood were more into sports than I and, while we got along, I can’t say that I was super close with any of them. I wouldn’t have a BFF until we moved out of our apartment and into our tiny house in Coney Island. I was 14 when we moved.
During my elementary school years I developed other interests which lead to my trips to the library. Astronomy was a favorite reading subject and believe it or not, politics. These were the years of Joseph McCarthy and. with all the talk about “communism”and “socialism” I began reading what I could find on the subject.
I had a civics class at school in the 7th grade; one of the issues to write about was “Should communists be allowed to run in our elections?” One couldn’t answer that unless one knew what communism was and had a basic knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.
My father told me to read these books at the library and not check them out. Three of my four grandparents were not citizens. And his mother, my grandmother, was a “red”.
Miss Clara was the librarian back then; she noticed my interests and allowed me to read and check out books from the adult section which may or may not have been against the rules. She turned me on to history, reading about the second world war, the holocaust (although I don’t think it was called that back then) and Greek and Roman history.
Taking note of the kid’s interests Miss Clara recommended a book – a kid’s “Iliad.”
Of course it wasn’t the epic poem in Homeric Greek, nor was it even in poetry form; it was a narrative story of the Trojan War.
And it was a ten year old dreamer’s introduction to one of the two foundation texts of Western civilization – the other, in my opinion being the Bible. The Iliad stands at the beginning of one tradition— the written tradition—it also comes at the end of an entirely different tradition. One way of thinking about Homer’s Iliad is as a survivor of a form of purely oral poetry passed down from generation to generation without ever being written down.
It was Miss Clara who introduced the boy to Achilles, Paris, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Priam, Patroclus , Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, Diomedes, Odysseus, the Gods, the priests and priestesses, the prophecies and of course Hector, Prince of Troy.
I would learn later that Troy was a real place and I would later read an English version of Homer’s epic, now 2,500 years old and telling an oral tale much older than that.
And over the years I would continue to learn from the Iliad for the Iliad is the basis of—and the model for—every kind of war narrative, action movie, superhero comic, and adventure saga that has come after it. It is ground zero.
“Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.
For instance, why fight at all? Why not just sit around and wait for the war to end or for death or whatever else is coming down the pike? Or for another example, just how much is one man’s honor worth? Worth upsetting a king’s plans? Yeah, probably. Leading to the deaths of a lot of others? Um… maybe not.”
Achilles is close to the Gods but cannot control his rage when his pride is injured; injured pride is a stain on his “honor”. This attribute so poisons him that he abandons his comrades and even prays that the Trojans will slaughter them, all because he has been slighted at the hands of his commander Agamemnon, who is also prideful as well as stubborn. Achilles, though protected by the gods, has a physical weakness as well. All mortal men do.
Paris prefers to be the lover rather than the fighter with no qualms about running off with another man’s wife. It was Paris who gave the golden apple inscribed “For the most beautiful” to the Goddess Aphrodite after she promised him the most beautiful girl in the world, angering Athena and Hera, the other two contestants for the apple, who vowed to destroy Troy. Paris is fearful of fighting Helen’s husband Menelaus in hand to hand combat.
Hector is Troy’s greatest warrior. wrecking havoc on the Greeks during Achilles absence from the field. He is a loving husband and father, even treating his brother Paris with forgiveness and indulgence, despite the man’s lack of spirit and preference for lovemaking over military duty. Hector never turns violent with him, merely aiming frustrated words at his cowardly brother. Moreover, although Hector loves his family, he never loses sight of his responsibility to Troy. His duty to the nation.
Hector too has faults, mutilating the body of Patroclus and stripping off his armor, the armor of Achilles. He runs from Achilles at first and briefly entertains the delusional hope of negotiating his way out of a duel. However, in the end he stands up to the mighty warrior, even when he realizes that the gods have abandoned him. His refusal to flee even in the face of vastly superior forces makes him the most tragic figure in the poem.
The Iliad reveals the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of men and gods and asks the questions: What is honor and how much is it worth? Why fight at all? Who is wise and who is stubborn? Who is brave and does bravery make up for other character flaws? Who appears cowardly but wants only to live, love and die in his own bed? How much do you owe to your king, your state, your country?
The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not live on after them in their buildings and institutions.
Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall. If mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.
If Priam and Achilles can sit together and make their peace over the body of Hector, who among us cannot? How petty are the arguments of men in the face of mortality?
Too bad the young no longer read the Iliad.
Thank you Miss Clara.