Tag Archives: Homer

The Kingdom of This World: Why Men Fight in War and Peace

The Battle of Schöngrabern. 1883.

As I am making my way through War and Peace, I can’t help but notice the similarities of theme, narrative techniques and even characters between Tolstoy’s epic and Homer’s Iliad.  I was glad to see in Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky a small section explaining what Steiner feels is Homer’s significant influences on Tolstoy, not just in War and Peace, but in all of his writings, even his autobiographical pieces.  Steiner writes:

The Homer of the Iliad and Tolstoy are akin in yet another respect.  Their image of reality is anthropomorphic; man is the measure and pivot of experience.  Moreover, the atmosphere in which the personages of the Iliad and of Tolstoyan fiction are shown to us is profoundly humanistic and even secular.  What matters is the kingdom of this world, here and now.

This concentration of what Steiner calls an anthropomorphic reality is particularly evident in Tolstoy’s descriptions of why upper class men, accustomed to rich and pampered lives, voluntarily go to war and sacrifice their comfort for the Russian monarchy.  I have written in a previous post about the Ancient Greek concept of kleos (“glory” or “fame”)  which theme Homer weaves throughout his narrative.  In Bronze Age Greece kings and wealthy men also leave behind their families and relatively comfortable lives in order to fight at Troy and win kleos.  Homer’s Bronze Age warriors, however, want fame not only in this life but also in the next; they will give up their mortal existence in exchange for eternal glory.

Tolstoy’s heroes in War and Peace have motives similar to the warriors in the Iliad.  But I would argue that the men who are fighting the French in Tolstoy’s epic have incitements for battle that are more deeply anthropomorphic—of the here and now, as Steiner would say—than the Homeric heroes.  Tolstoy spends a great deal of time laying out both Prince Andrei’s and Count Rostov’s reasons for volunteering to fight in the war.  In my initial post, I discussed Prince Andrei’s dissatisfaction with his marriage and the boredom he feels while attending insipid society balls and parties.  Tolstoy, at first, describes the Prince as a man that wants something more exciting and meaningful in his life but it is not just boredom that is his driving force to step onto the battlefield.  We learn that Prince Andrei’s hero is, ironically, Napoleon himself, the very man against whom the Russians are fighting.  The Prince craves the recognition, fame and glory that is bestowed on this most famous of French commanders.  As an adjutant on General Kutuzov’s staff he prepares for the battle of Austerlitz and daydreams of earning his mark of greatness, no matter the cost:

‘Well then,’ Prince Andrei answered himself, ‘I don’t know what will happen and I don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this—want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that.  Yes, for that alone!  I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s love?  Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing.  And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife–those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here,’ he thought, as he listened to voices in Kutuzov’s courtyard.

These words could just as easily have been spoken by Achilles or Hector in the Iliad.

Count Rostov, at the tender age of eighteen, also volunteers to be a part of the cavalry in the war against the French.  Rostov is more naïve and youthful than Prince Andrei, but he too is seeking fame and glory.  But there is a major difference between the type of fame that Prince Andrei and Rostov crave.  The Prince wants to be know by all men, but Rostov wants to be known by one man, in  particular, the Russian Emperor Alexander I.  Rostov gets his first glimpse of the Emperor while the army is on parade in front of their beloved leader.  Rostov can only be described as smitten at the sight of his sovereign and his sole motivation for fighting in the war is to distinguish himself and gain the notice of Alexander I.  The description of Rostov’s love for his Emperor, as the troops prepare for the battle of Austerlitz, is striking:

And Rostov got up and went wandering among the camp fires dreaming of what happiness it would be to die—not in saving the Emperor’s life (he did not even dare to dream of that) but simply to die before his eyes.  He really was in love with the Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms and the hope of future triumph.  And he was not the only man to experience that feeling during those memorable days preceding the battle of Austerlitz; nine-tenths of the men in the Russian army were then in love, though less ecstatically, with their Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms.

At the end of the tragic and horrendous battle, Rostov finds himself alone with the Tsar, but like a nervous lover, cannot bring himself to approach this great man:

But as a youth in love trembles, is unnerved, and dares not utter the thoughts he has dreamt of for nights, but looks around for help or a chance of delay and flight when the longed-for moment comes and he is alone with her, so Rostov, now that he had attained what he had longed for more than anything else in the world, did not know how to approach the Emperor, and a thousand reasons occurred to him why it would be inconvenient, unseemly and impossible to do so.

Tolstoy’s description of soldier as lover stuck me as an inverted example of Ovid’s theme of Militia Amoris (“soldier of love”) that he incorporates into the Amores.  The feelings of love and admiration in this context of battle deepen, I think, the anthropomorphic reality that pervades War and Peace.  But, like the Homeric heroes and Ovid as a lover, Tolstoy hints that, although these men have lofty, mortal goals, things will not turn out well for them.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

Excellence and Honor in Logue’s War Music

Achilles and Agamemnon, Book 1 of The Iliad, Roman Mosaic

I continue my discussion in this post of Logue’s War Music by focusing on the Homeric Greek concepts of arête (excellence) and tîmê (honour).  For those who are interested, I have discussed in previous posts the ideas of kleos and aidos and how Logue deftly weaves these concepts into his startling translation of the Iliad.

When the Greeks land on the beach at Troy, they are really fighting two different wars: one against the Trojans and one amongst themselves.  The heroic code that is established in this warrior culture ensures that there is constant conflict and fighting among the soldiers themselves.  It is not surprising that Agamemnon and Achilles have a fight over prizes; what is surprising is that it took nine years for this argument to finally erupt.  They each strictly adhere to the values of arête (excellence) and  tîmê (honor), but their different applications of these concepts to their own circumstances causes a great deal of conflict, misunderstanding and arguing.

The Greek word arête, which comes from the superlative adjective aristos (the best), can simply be translated as “excellence.” H.D.F.  Kitto includes a thorough discussion of arête is his book The Greeks.  He points out that arête can be used to denote the excellence of the entire man, body and soul.  He states:

If it [arête] is used, in a general contest, of a man it will connote excellence in the ways in which a man can be excellent—morally, intellectually, physically, practically.  Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phaeacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.

Kitto points out that Achilles is the hero who possesses this all-around type of excellence in the Iliad.  But arête can also be applied to more limited contexts as well.  Achilles, for example, places an emphasis and importance on his arête as a warrior, as a fighter, as the best fighter among the Achaeans.  He knows that the Greeks will not be successful without him and he is the reason they have sacked and looted many cities around the Troad.  It is this second example, this more specific application of arête, excellence on the battlefield, upon which Logue builds the conflict in his first book of War Music.  In his typical, forceful, succinct and shocking style Logue’s Achilles sums up the Greek’s modus operandi: “We land. We fight. We kill.  We load.”   And Achilles reminds Agamemnon of his prowess in battle: “Since I arrived, my Lord,/ I have sent 20 lesser Ilion towns/Backwards into the smoke.”  He further reminds Agamemnon that Briseis, a beautiful woman whose husband Achilles destroyed, is given to him by the Greek warriors as a prize “In recognition of my strength, my courage my superiority.”  Achilles views Briseis as a prize, a special reward for his arête in battle.  So when Agamemnon takes away Briseis in order to make up for his own, lost prize, Achilles sees this as an insult to his work and his arête.  Logue highlights the fact that Agamemnon can’t understand Achilles’ argument over the prize because the king views arête very differently.

Agamemon’s focus is not arête on the battlefield, but instead he places importance on arête as a king and leader.  Logue’s Agamemnon states: “As being first means being privileged,/ So privilege incurs responsibility./ And my responsibility is plain:/To keep the army whole. To see it hale./To lead it through Troy’s Skean Gate.”  Agamemnon’s arête, his excellence, depends on his status as king and ruler of the Greeks and this status, he feels, is tied directly to any prizes the Greek army retrieves from pillaged towns.  As leader he has first choice of the best prizes and when he is forced to give up his most valued prize, Cryzia, then he feels it is his right to take someone else’s “she” as recompense: “What does it matter whose prize she I take?/ But take I shall, and if needs be, by force.”  Logue has perfectly captured Agamemnon’s concept of arête with these forceful words.  Logue is intimately familiar with the intricacies of Homeric culture and underscores the fact that Achilles and Agamemnon cannot understand or even relate to one another’s arguments over Briseis since they each value very different forms of arête.

As Achilles and Agamemnon are arguing, they each make it a point of accusing the other of having no tîmê (honour) .  The Homeric idea of tîmê is tightly bound to a hero’s arête.  Through arête in battle Achilles gains a prize, Briseis, which becomes a symbol of tîmê for him.  When Achilles is stripped of this prize,  his tîmê  is also threatened.   Agamemnon, on the other hand, equates tîmê with the respect that should be shown to a king.  To be forced to give up his prize and not have another in its place is damaging to Agamemnon’s  tîmê: “..as the loss of an allotted she/Diminishes my honour and my state,/ Before the army leaves the common sand/Its captain lords will find among their own/Another such for me.”

Neither hero can relate to or see the other’s side because they each view arête differently and as a result gain tîmê by very different means. Logue perfectly captures the misunderstanding between these men, especially through the insults that he has them launch at one another.  Achilles accuses Agamemnon of having no tîmê and he knows what to say that will be the most offensive and insulting to the king:

“Shame that your King is not so  bound to you
As he is bound to what he sniffs.

Here is the truth:
King Agamemnon is not honour bound.
Honour to Agamemnon is a thing
That he can pick, pick up, put back, pick up again,
A somesuch that you might find beneath your bed.

Do not tell Agamemnon honour is
No mortal thing, but ever in creation,
Vital, free, like speed, like light,
Like silence, like the gods,
The movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!
Dividing man from beast, hero from host,
That proves best, best, that only death can reach,
Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,
now, and in time to be, for evermore.”

What I find so brilliant about Logue’s “translation” is that in this one, succinct speech his Achilles explains the specific meaning of Homeric tîmê as something that has religious significance and is something that lives on when a hero dies.   As I stated in my first post, I found it unsettling that Logue was not trained in Ancient Greek nor was he interested in a line by line translation of the Iliad.  He does, however, capture the true essence of these Homeric heroes as well as their mores and traditions with his startling, compact, unexpected and poetic lines.  The Iliad is a war poem and it should be jarring—Logue’s rendition of this epic has reminded me of this and has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for Homer which I never thought would be possible since I have read it in Ancient Greek and English so many times.

2 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation

Hero-Shaming: Aidos and Nemesis in Logue’s War Music

Nemesis and Tyche

Nemesis and Tyche

Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, body-shaming, teen-shaming, pet-shaming.  In the blogging and book world I have even seen list-shaming recently.  There has been an explosion of attempts in the 21st century to shame one another into appropriate behavior via social media.  But what do these online exchanges really accomplish?  Have they really made us a more moral and ethical society?  Or is all of this shaming a badly veiled form of bullying and harassment?

It seems that we have come a very long way from the Homeric concept of shame, aidos, which was a quality a man or woman possessed that was a motivation for him or her to follow what was considered the correct behavior.  Aidos is the feeling of shame, humility or modesty that is specifically related to three aspects of Homeric society: situations involving sexuality, the entertainment of guests, and standing one’s ground in battle.  This last category especially pertains to the heroes in the Iliad Aidos, or shame, is what keeps a Homeric hero on the battlefield despite the horrors of warfare.  If a man flees from the battlefield due to fear or cowardice he feels great aidos, shame, in front of his fellow warriors.  James Redfield in his pivotal book “Nature and Culture in the Iliad” sums up aidos and its impact on the Homeric hero: “Combat is the crucial social act, for in combat the survival of the collectivity is at stake.  The aidos felt in battle is an experience of the collectivity; a man stands his ground because he shrinks from betraying his fellows.”

The exemplar of a hero with the most acute sense of aidos in The Iliad is Hector.  He goes into fierce battles brought on by his brother because to hide away from war would cause him great aidos. In Book VI of The Iliad, Hector returns home in the midst of fighting the Greeks in order to speak with his wife Andromache and see his infant son Astyanax.  In this beautiful yet deeply sad exchange between husband and wife, Andromache begs Hector not to go back into battle and she appeals to his sense of pity to persuade him.  She argues that when Hector dies she will be a lonely widow and their son will be a fatherless orphan.  Hector greatly pities his beloved wife as he contemplates with horror the aftermath of Troy’s destruction when she will be carried off as a slave to serve in a Greek man’s home.  But not even the thought of his wife as a captive will keep him from rejoining the battle.  What does keep him fighting and risking his life is his sense of aidos; he will die of shame, he says, if he does not return to battle and has to face the men or women of Troy who will think him a coward who shrinks from battle.  As with the concept of kleos, Homeric aidos is deeply rooted within community, something that is dependent on one’s society.

Paris is a flawed Homeric hero, the antithesis to his brother Prince Hector.  When Paris is saved from battle by the goddess Aphrodite, he feels no aidos at leaving the battlefield.  He is happy to sit in his rooms and drink in Helen’s beauty.  Paris’s sense of aidos is never fully developed and his lack of aidos makes him impervious to any nemesis he might incur.

I am disappointed that Logue did not recreate the scene in Book VI between Hector and Andromache because it is one of my favorite parts of the Iliad.  Logue does, however,  in his account of Iliad Books 3 and 4, approach the subject of Hector’s sense of aidos when the Prince volunteers himself to the Trojans who are trying to decide which man will fight Menelaus one on one.  The Trojans say about Hector’s offer:

Hector has fought and fought, has given blood and now—
Breathtaking grace,—offers his life and his armour to end
The hostilities he did not cause.

In this simply stated line, Logue alludes to one of Hector’s primary motivations for fighting a war against men who have not personally wronged him: his sense of aidos.  But the Trojans decide that it should be Paris who fights Menelaus since he started this mess in the first place.  Logue primarily deals with the Homeric idea of aidos through the character of Paris as an example of how a hero ought not to behave.  In Logue’s account, which is faithful to the Homeric plot, Aphrodite swoops in and saves Paris just before Menelaus is able to slaughter him.  When Paris reappears back in their palatial bedroom, Helen attempts to persuade Paris to go back out onto the battlefield and fight for her.  She is trying to appeal to Paris’s sense of aidos which is futile become he completely lacks this Homeric quality.  He is a defective Homeric hero:

Your death will be the best for everyone
Troy will reopen.  I shall sail for Greece.
And you will not survive your cowardice.

And later in Logue’s account of Iliad Books 7-9,  when the Greeks are beaten back to their ships and suffer horrible loses, the heroes appeal to one another’s sense of aidos to keep them on the battlefield.  The Greek men shout to one another:

Stand still and fight.
Feel shame in one another’s eyes.
I curse you, God.  You are a liar, God.
Troy will be yours by dark—immortal lies!
Home!
Home!
There’s no such place!
You can’t launch burning ships.
More men survive if no one runs.

In typical, short burst, hard hitting sentences Logue perfectly captures the Homeric ideal of aidos.  Logue’s last line of this quote in particular is reminiscent of Iliad V.531 and XV.563 when the Greeks and Trojans, in the midst of battle, are shouting to each other that when men feel aidos, more of them are likely to be saved in combat than perish.  So the Greek heroes’ need for kleos (fame) is what made them follow Agamemnon and Menelaus across the Aegean in the first place, but aidos is what keeps them from fleeing in horror every time they take their places on the battlefield.

The Greek concept of Nemesis, “righteous indignation  or “retribution” is closely related to aidos.  If a man acts improperly then he will incur the nemesis of his community;  it is aidos that keeps a man from behaving badly and attracting nemesis.  Redfield says about this Homeric concept:  “But nemesis is provoked by any act which is both improper and unexpected, ranging from failures of tact to cowardice and  betrayal.”  The outlandish behavior of the suitors, for instance, evokes nemesis in those who witness their bad manners.  Paris’s lack of aidos when he is carried off the battlefield is something that brings out nemesis in Hector who tries to persuade Paris to do the right thing.

I have found Logue’s insertion of nemesis into his poem especially interesting.  As Helen appears on the wall at Troy and looks down at the assembled armies, there is a hush over the warriors as they stare at her in awe.  And one after the other says about her:

Ou nem’me’sis…
Ou nem’me’sis…

There is some behavior that, while not ideal, is still within the acceptable social norm.  Such behavior is considered ou nemesis (ou meaning “no,” “not”).  Running from mortal danger (except on the battlefield), for instance, is ou nemesis.  I thought for a long time about Logue’s use of this phrase in relation to Helen and I believe it is his way of explaining the unfortunate circumstances under which Helen arrived in Troy.  Logue points out that it was Aphrodite that gave Helen to Paris, so Helen herself really can’t be shamed for causing this war that was not entirely her fault.  Thus, her situation is ou nemesis, even from a Greek fighter’s standpoint.  It’s also interesting to note that if it were not for her, then these heroes would not have this prime opportunity for kleos (fame).  So, another reason for ou nemesis.

In my next Logue post I will turn my attention to what, exactly, happens on the battlefield.  What makes a fighter or a man excellent?  How is honor related to a hero’s excellence?

6 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music

achilles_agamemnon_pompei_mosaic_namnaples_100006Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I.  Mosaic, Pompeii

As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic.  Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.

In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word.  When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors.  In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished.  This path will not give him any kleos.  However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos.  When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his  mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life.  Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses.  Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.

In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey.  When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with.  Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead.  The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.

So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died.  The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield.  That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them.  Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.

James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives.  Redfield writes:

Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone.  Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story.  He will not be utterly annihilated.  Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.

There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave.  Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young  man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased.  Kleos, thereforeis also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next.  A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds.  Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son.  Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.

Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad.  Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:

You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity

Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’s kleos which will be greater than any other man’s.  Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.”  “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos.    Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.”  And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton.  Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos.  And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.

Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus?  Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls.  In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos.  Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:

We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.

Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece.  Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos.  And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.

war-music

13 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

Rage—Sing Goddess: Some initial thoughts on Logue’s War Music

war-music

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?
Dear Child…
Then do not interrupt.

And when Achilles and Agamemnon almost come to blows:

Achilles’ face
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…

12 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction