Homer’s Iliad begins: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος and the best translation I have ever seen of these first words of the epic is from Robert Fagles: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…”
I was disappointed, at first, how Logue chose to begin War Music, his modern reimaging of the Iliad. As a classicist I naturally expected some version of the first line of the Iliad. The Fagles translation is my favorite because he just nails the translation of Homer’s first line—he puts “wrath” first, which is what Homer very deliberately does in the Ancient Greek. And every ancient epic after that in the tradition of the Iliad follows suit and puts the most important word, the word that sets the tone for the entire poem, as the very first word. So not to see this line at all was a bit startling. But, I was immediately drawn in and excited by the exchange between Achilles and his mother. Logue manages to bring Achilles extreme form of rage to the forefront in just a few words. I quickly realized that Logue captures the spirit, the essence and the central concepts of Homer’s war poem and he does it with his own unique poetic style that, at times, is quite startling.
In the opening dialogue with his mother, Achilles is telling Thetis about the quarrel he has had with King Agamemnon. When his mother interrupts him we get the first small glimpse of his anger with a short, abrupt dialogue that is typical of Logue’s style:
Will you hear me or not?
Then do not interrupt.
And when Achilles and Agamemnon almost come to blows:
Is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat
His brain says: Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home
His thigh steels flex.
And when Achilles asks his mother to help destroy his own Greeks:
Let the Greeks die.
Let them taste pain.’
Remained his prayer
And he for whom
Fighting was breath, was bread,
Remained beside his ships
And hurt his honour as he nursed his wrong.
Xenia is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age and the main conflict in the epic poem is caused because of a violation of this custom. Xenia is translated as “guest-friendship” or “hospitality” and it covers three important circumstances. First, if a person welcomes a guest into his home the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment. In the Odyssey, Polyphemus perpetrates a horrible violation of this aspect of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats some of his guests.
The next area that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home. A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host. There is also a violation of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey when the suitors have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts. The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.
The conflict that is central to the plot of the Iliad also begins with a violation of xenia by Paris who was a guest in Menelaus’s home and stole something very important, Menelaus’s wife. Instead of providing Menelaus with a gift, he takes something from his host that does not belong to him. Logue eloquently and simply writes: “Troy harbours thieves.” Menelaus, his warmongering brother Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks are attempting to scale the walls of Troy to get Helen back, or so it seems. They each have very different motives for being at Troy, which I will discuss a little later.
The final aspect that is associated with the concept of xenia is that of respect towards a suppliant. If a Greek is approached by another man as a suppliant, begging for a favor and offering rich gifts in return for that favor, a Greek must be respectful and capitulate. Logue, in two short pages, has a powerful and succinct description of Agamemnon’s violation of this aspect of xenia. Cryzia, the Priest of Apollo, approaches Agamemnon as a suppliant and offers a ransom to get back his daughter whom Agamemnon has taken as his prize:
Two shipholds of amphorae filled with Lycian wine,
A line of Turkey mules,
2,000 sheepskins, cured, cut, and sewn,
To have his daughter back.
Agamemnon not only refuses Cryzia’s request as a suppliant but he also insults and threatens him:
If, priest, if
When I complete the things I am about to say
I catch you loitering around our Fleet
Ever again, I shall with you in one,
And in my other hand your mumbo rod,
Thrash you until your eyeballs shoot.
Logue’s style is fast-paced, poetic, graphic, and shocking. In just a few words he presents the spirit of xenia through the pleading words of the Priest and the enormity of the gift he is offering. And with Agamemnon’s violent and startling retort, he lays out the enormity of the violation of xenia by this arrogant and self-centered king. One example of Logue’s writing genius is his handling of Agamemnon’s character with a focus on Agamemnon’s mouth. “Mouth, King Mouth,” Achilles shouts to Agamemnon when they are fighting over Agamemnon’s unacceptable and dangerous behavior. The king listens to no one, he is brash, and he is all mouth. By contrast Nestor says about Achilles: “Your voice is honey and your words are winged.”
There is one final to mention about Logue’s first chapter. In the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, Achilles brings up the oath that these men have taken about Helen when she is married to Menelaus. The myth of Helen’s betrothal is a very specific piece of the Troy Saga and it struck me that it would be nearly impossible for a reader to understand Logue without being familiar with Homer as well as other parts of the Troy cycle. In a conversation with Tom whose blog is Wuthering Expectations, we both agreed that reading the Iliad first is a must before one begins to understand Logue on any level. I am curious if anyone has tried to read Logue without first being familiar with Homer and the myths of Troy.
I have decided to cover Logue’s masterpiece over the course of several posts and talk about his brilliant rendering of more Homeric values in War Music. Why are these men really there? Could their sole motivation really be to recapture another man’s wife, despite any oath they might have? The answers lie in the Greek concept of kleos and arête. I am hoping that my posts will encourage readers to pick up both the Iliad and War Music. Stay tuned…