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The Iliad (MAXNotes Literature Guides)

The Iliad (MAXNotes Literature Guides)

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The Iliad (MAXNotes Literature Guides)

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Jan 1, 2013


REA's MAXnotes for Homer's The Illiad MAXnotes offer a fresh look at masterpieces of literature, presented in a lively and interesting fashion. Written by literary experts who currently teach the subject, MAXnotes will enhance your understanding and enjoyment of the work. MAXnotes are designed to stimulate independent thought about the literary work by raising various issues and thought-provoking ideas and questions. MAXnotes cover the essentials of what one should know about each work, including an overall summary, character lists, an explanation and discussion of the plot, the work's historical context, illustrations to convey the mood of the work, and a biography of the author. Each chapter is individually summarized and analyzed, and has study questions and answers.
Jan 1, 2013

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The Iliad (MAXNotes Literature Guides) - Beth Tanis




The Homeric Tradition

While the Iliad is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of literature ever composed, surprisingly little is known of its author. The poet known as Homer is shrouded in mystery. Until the eighteenth century, tradition unquestionably held that Homer was a blind poet who told tales of a time long past even in his own day. It has generally been agreed that Homer lived and worked in the city of Smyrna, located in what is now Turkey. The earliest mention of the name Homer is in the work of Xenophanes of Colophon, a philosopher who wrote in the sixth century B.C. There are quotations from work attributed to him in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus among others (Vivante, 24). However, historians have been unable to find any hard evidence of his existence, in large part because he lived before the event of written history.

Because of stylistic similarities, it has been proposed that the Iliad, the Odyssey, and several other minor works were composed by the same poet, known as Homer. By tradition these poems were handed down over many centuries. Who that poet might have been—and whether or not this is even true—is a matter of debate. One theory is that there was a gifted poet named Homer who composed the skeleton of the works, but that the final version is the result of many different poets expanding and editing the poem over time. Another theory is that the Iliad represents the work of many poets and as many as 18 separate poems that were compiled into a coherent whole. It could also have been an expansion of one or more shorter poems by the same author. Evidence for these theories is based on certain inconsistencies within the epic, as well as the existence of some of the material elsewhere, indicating that it must have been borrowed.

Other possibilities certainly exist, and the debate will most likely never be resolved. What is certain, however, is that the Iliad and the Odyssey are among the world’s best known and most influential achievements, together forming the base of a tradition that later included Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Commedia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and many others.

The Genre of the Epic Poem

The Iliad is an epic poem and part of the ancient Greek oral tradition. Homer’s audience was an illiterate culture, and Homer himself was most likely illiterate. Many critics believe that the composition of the Iliad predated any form of writing in the Greek culture. There are some critics, however, who believe that the Iliad must have existed in writing, given its length and complexity. It would have been nearly impossible to maintain such a coherent form by oral transmission alone. This does not mean, however, that it existed in the form that we now know it, or that it was accessible to the general public. If writing did exist, it is thought to have been practiced only by a few storytellers. These Men of Words would write down their best tales for their own use and to train their apprentices. They would not be seen by anyone else. Because of the enormous effort of writing, these books would become very valuable possessions, and would be passed down from the storyteller to his successor (Murray, 95-96).

The poets themselves were highly regarded by their contemporaries and treated as fellow workers who attempted to bring beauty to life. The purpose of the tales was both to eloquently preserve the history of a people and to entertain. The stories consisted of a mix of common history borrowed from past poets and embellishments added by the poet. Because these poems were delivered orally, they were adapted and elaborated with each telling, and were never the same twice. Whether written or not, the elaborate tales were recited by professional oral poets as entertainment at banquets, festivals, and fairs. It is known, for instance, that the Iliad was performed yearly at the Panathenaea in Athens, a great fair held every four years and lasting several days. At this festival, the Iliad was performed in relay fashion by many storytellers competing against each other. Each bard would attempt to make his portion of the poem more entertaining than the others. This resulted in some stretching and embellishment of facts. These were permitted as long as the teller did not deviate too far from known history.

A poet would rely on several routine devices to remember the core events of the narrative. These included the following:

Epic Hero—a virtuous and noble figure, proven in battle, who represents his nation, culture, or race.

Length—while each episode was designed to be recounted in a single evening, the entire work is quite long.

Lofty Style—the tone of the work is primarily serious, and the style is exalted—worthy of the subject.

Epic Similes—the poem contains extended comparisons between one element or character and something foreign to the poem. The simile helps the reader to see the object in a different way, and says a great deal with fewer words than would otherwise be necessary.

Catalogs/Genealogies—the work usually contains long inventories or catalogs of characters, equipment, or other elements. Also included are elaborate genealogies of major characters, underlying their history and importance.

Supernatural Involvement—the main action of the work always includes involvement of the gods to either help or hinder the hero.

Invocation—most poems begin with an invocation to the Muses, or to some other higher power, requesting guidance. One Muse often invoked is Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. The invocation serves as an introduction to the action that is about to be recounted.

In Medias Res—it is not uncommon for an epic poem to begin in the middle of the action and proceed to fill in details of events that occurred earlier.

Voyage Across the Seamost epic poems include a sea voyage by the hero or other major character. This convention gives the poet an opportunity to test the hero in unfamiliar circumstances.

Trip to the Underworldmany epics also contain a dangerous visit to the underworld, where the hero gathers advice and information from the dead.

Epic Battlesanother feature is accounts of fantastic battles between individuals or between vast armies.

The mark of a skilled poet was that he could fit his story into the rigid epic format and add his own style to keep the audience interested and entertained. The Iliad is nearly ten times longer than what would ordinarily be performed in one sitting. Other than the marathons in Athens, it was most likely performed in pieces, with the poet relating one episode of the whole at each performance. The stories of the best epic poets were passed down from generation to generation. The Iliad and the Odyssey were passed down as part of the oral tradition until finally a literate culture wrote them down—probably during the sixth century B.C. No other ancient Greek poet has been so completely preserved.

The Greek text of the Iliad is written in dactylic hexameter. The rhythm is therefore one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, with six of these groups to a line. Many phrases, such as darkness covered his eyes, or white armed to describe a woman, are repeated over and over throughout the poem. This rhythm and formulaic phrasing helped the poet remember his tale. The repetition also helped to stress certain points to a listening audience. While they may not have heard something the first time it was said, they were likely to catch it the second or third time. There are many incidents that recur throughout the work as well, such as the sending of messengers, the assembly of forces, arming for battle, friends avenging the death of friends, and feasting. The effect of all of these techniques in the Iliad is a remarkable coherence and unity that far surpasses most epic poems of the same period.

Homer’s work differs from many epic poems in another significant way. The subject of the vast majority of these poems involves men possessing supernatural power, serving some higher purpose or fulfilling a mission. They are larger than life in their scope. The Iliad, however, is marked by the distinct absence of these devices. The action takes place in the span of days rather than months or years; the gods do interact with the mortals, yet they simply encourage existing possibilities rather than intervening in supernatural ways; the action is full of heroes, yet there is no exaggerated heroism. The result is a perception of the immediate rather than the eternal; a humanizing of the myth. We see the suffering

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