Tag Archives: The Iliad

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.

 

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Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

The Rush of Wonder: George Steiner on The Iliad

I was emotionally stirred when reading George Steiner’s beautiful second chapter in his book Errata in which he describes his initial experience with reading and translating Homer as a six-year-old boy: “My father, in broad strokes, had told me the story of the Iliad.  He had kept the book itself out of my impatient reach.  Now he opened it before us in the translation by Johann-Heinrich Voss of 1793.  Papa turned to Book XXI.”  Steiner’s father goes on to read Homer’s account of Achilles’s murderous fury and his killing of the Trojan youth Lycaon who begs for his life in vain.

Steiner’s father then opens the passage in Ancient Greek and as a very young boy he gets his first taste of the language:

My father read the Greek several times over.  He made me mouth the syllables after him.  Dictionary and grammar flew open.  Like the lineaments of a brightly colored mosaic lying under sand, when you pour water on it, the words, the formulaic phrases, took on form and meaning for me.  Word by sung word, verse by verse.  I recall graphically the rush of wonder, of a child’s consciousness troubled and uncertainly ripened, by the word “friend” in the  midst of the death-sentence: “Come friend, you too must die.”  And by the enormity, so far as I could gauge it, of the question: “Why  moan about it so?”  Very slowly, allowing me his treasured Waterman pen, my father let me trace some of the Greek letters and accents.

…Papa made a further proposal, as in passing: “Shall we learn some lines from this episode by heart?”  So that the serene inhumanity of Achilles’  message, its soft terror, would never leave us.  Who could tell, moreover, what I might find on my night-table when going back to my room?  I raced.  And found my first Homer.  Perhaps the rest has been a footnote to that hour.

Steiner further discusses what effect classic works like those of Homer, Tolstoy and Dante have on us.  He ends the chapter with this personal reflection: “Exposure, from early childhood, to these ordinances of excellence, the desire to share with others the answerability and transmission in time without which the classic falls silent, made of me exactly what my father intended: a teacher.”

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction

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.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation

Review: Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature from Ancient Greece. So I was thrilled when I received an advanced copy from the author of The Hand of Fire, a novel set during the Trojan War.

My Review:
perf6.000x9.000.inddIn Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, the best of the Greek warriors, has taken as one of his prizes the woman Briseis.  Briseis is captured from the city of Lyrnessos which Achilles and the Myrmidons raided in their search for prizes, livestock and anything else to help sustain their war effort.  The character of Briseis in the Iliad says very few words.  But what would it have been like to be a princess of a prosperous Bronze Age city and then taken captive by a Greek warrior?  How was Briseis treated by Achilles and did she actually love him?  These are the questions that Judith Starkston attempts to answer in her new novel Hand of Fire.

When Hand of Fire begins, Lyrnessos is a thriving city and Briseis has been raised by her mother to be a priestess and a healer who will serve her people.  She is betrothed to the prince of Lyrnessos and she will someday become the city’s queen.  The aspect of the novel that impressed me the most is the amount of research that the author did pertaining to Bronze Age homes, religious customs, and society.  I have read the Iliad countless times, and I have even translated it in from the original Ancient Greek.  Hand of Fire let me see the world of the Trojan War in a way in which I had never fully imagined. Continue reading

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Filed under Historical Fiction