Troy vs The Illiad

Troy vs The Iliad

{This post exists because of GQH promising to read and blog about all of Shakespeare's plays. Just so he doesn't think it's an original idea or anything. Once I reread it, I decided it was good enough to copy here just on the off chance that someone might be interested.}

3 July 2004
This weekend I started reading Homer's The Illiad, in E. V. Rieu's prose translation of 1950. You might wish to note that when I say Ilium, I'm talking of the city, and when I say Troy, I'm talking of the movie.

The first thing that struck me was how like the Norse Sagas it is, particularly through kenning. That shouldn't be a surprise, given the history of each work of literature as verbal stories. The second thing was that the book opened with the Greeks having been camped out on the beach in front of Ilium for NINE YEARS! No wonder the movie changed things around so much. Today's audiences will barely sit still for nine minutes.

It rapidly becomes clear that the various Greek Gods and Goddesses are taking sides in this war, and to keep it interesting, are not on the same side. I guess that would end things too quickly. They scheme against one another even more than the humans on opposite sides of the war.

Helen has already been "abducted" as the book opens. There are several instances where the gory details of sacrificing animals to the Gods are explained; it's just as well the movie didn't go into that. PETA would have had a fit. Homer and Rieu both assume you know who the Gods are, and their relationship to each other. It's been a long time since my Greek mythology, but I'm still hanging in.

Homer spends 7 full pages detailing the names of many ships, where they were from, and who captained them. I have to admit I skimmed over this part, and can forgive the directors for skipping it entirely.

As far as the duel between Paris and Menelaus goes, it's much more dramatic in Troy. In the book, they meet briefly, and Paris runs away even before any blows are struck. Hector verbally abuses him for cowardice, which persuades Paris to formally challenge Menelaus. They throw their spears at one another, Menelaus breaks his sword over Paris's helmet, then starts dragging him back to the Greek lines by the helmet. Aphrodite breaks the strap to free Paris, then whisks him away in a dense fog back to "his own perfumed fragrant bedroom". I suppose that's better than hiding behind Hector's skirts as in Troy, but just barely.

5 July
After some discussion, the fighting begins. Homer tells us who kills who, and how the battle ebbs and flows. The Gods and Goddesses get involved by encouraging their side, rescuing their favourites, doing some fighting, and some of them are actually wounded. Of course, none of this is shown in Troy. All we see is anonymous fighters killing one another.

Well, except for Diomedes. He goes on a bit of a rampage, sweeping all before him until he runs into Ares, but Here and Athene help him, and Diomedes wounds Ares.

6 July
Still more fighting, and quarreling about claiming armour from the fallen dead. Somehow Hector has time to go back into Ilium, find Paris in his bedroom, verbally abuse him some more, visit his own wife and child, and then go out and challenge the Greeks to send forward a champion to face him.

Eventually, the Greeks choose Aias through casting lots, and they fight to a draw by nightfall. At the end of the chapter they all agree to clear the field of the dead on the following day, but will continue the fight by spurning Paris's offer to return all of Helen's property, and more beside, but not Helen.

To be honest, it's a little tedious. There's only so many ways to describe men killing one another. As written, it isn't realistic. Nobody is going to be able to go to the front lines in such a battle and stop the fighting to make a speech. The whole war is filled with long, eloquent speechs by various participants. It almost seems like a leisurely affair, with time for some people to take a rest and discuss things. It's a different spirit and kind of fighting, in that most of the opponents know each other, or at least know of each other. Several of them exchanged lineage and gifts on the field of battle, and agreed to avoid one another for the day.

The immortals are intimately involved with the course of the war. They take action to promote the results they want or to thwart what an opposing God. Nothing they do really makes any particular sense to me, but they seem to be having fun. I guess if you're immortal you take your amusement where you find it.

11 July
So far the Greeks have been having it mostly their way. However, the Gods can't leave well enough alone, and Zeus decides the time has come for all the other Gods to stop interfering, so he can have all the fun himself. After a few lightning bolts, the Greeks get the idea that today isn't their day anymore, and retreat to their ships. In spite of Zeus's instructions to stop meddling, Here and Athene can't help themselves, and go off to do exactly that. Zeus send someone to warn them to stop, and just like that, they do. No wonder humans called the Gods and Godesses fickle.

Night falls with the Greeks in confusion around their ships, and the Trojans set guards all about to prevent the Greeks from attacking Ilium in the night. Agamemnon calls a council and tells his army he is ready to quit and sail home. It isn't a trick this time, it's what he really wants to do. Diomedes verbally abuses him for cowardice, and Nestor tells Agamemnon that he needs to share some of the food and wine that he has, and call a council. They decide to set sentries, and during the meal Nestor tells Agamemnon that it's all his fault because of the quarrel with Achilles. Agamemnon tries to buy off Achilles, and sends Achilles's friends Odysseus and others to convey the offer. Achilles turns it down, barely even needing to think about it.

After such a long day, you'd think that the men would be getting what sleep they can. But what's a war without a little treachery? Diomedes and Odysseus, with Agamemnon's approval go to spy out the Trojans to see what they can learn. Meanwhile Hector and the Trojans are having a council as well, and decide to send Dolon as a spy. In the little bit of humour I've found so far, the two sets of spies meet. When Odysseus asks nicely, Dolon tells all, and for his reward is killed by Diomedes. Both of them steal his armour and weapons, as was considered good form then, and go on to steal some fine horses from a Trojan commander. They were looking for more trouble and certainly would have found it, but Athene meddled again, and warned them to return to the boats. I guess Goddesses don't sleep either.

Thus far, The Iliad and Troy are scarecly the same story, and of the two of them, I prefer The Iliad. Yes, there are tedious bits, but I love the flavour of the language used by the leading men of the opposing forces. I'll pick one small example. Listen to Achilles refusing to accept Agamemnon's bribe.

Tell hin all I say, and tell him in public, so that the rest may frown on any further efforts he may make to overreach a Danaan prince, unconscionable schemer that he always is. And yet he would not dare to look me in the eye, for all his impudence. No; I will help neither by my advice nor in the field. He has broken faith with me and played me false; never again shall I be taken in by what he says. So much for him. Let him go quietly to perdition. Zeus in his wisdom has already addled his brains.
I like it, and there's much more besides. A more modern translater might say "He can go to Hell," but remember my translation is from the Fifties. So far my imagination has been generating perfectly wonderful images from the text. Seeing the movie first hasn't prevented this, though I do have to admit that when I see Odysseus of the nimble wits in my mind, it's Sean Bean staring out at me. But that's ok. His was about the only performance that I liked.

12 July
The war resumes at dawn, with Agamemnon leading the Greeks to press the Trojans almost to the walls of the city. However Zeus sends a messenger to Hector that when Agamemnon is wounded, Zeus will give Hector the strength to push the Greeks back to their ships. And so it happens. In addition to Agamemnon, Diomedes, Odysseus, and Aias are all wounded.

The scene shifts back to the ships, as Nestor has taken a wounded man back for aid. However once their it's like they forget the battle. They quench their thirst and engage in friendly conversation rather than go back to the front. Achilles sends Patroclus to find out who the wounded man is, and he joins the conversation. Nestor rebukes Achilles for not fighting, then proceeds to tell stories of his early manhood, when he was a warrior of renown. It's an oblique way of criticising Achilles, but meanwhile, I presume the battle is still raging.

What's clear is that Nestor puts the thought of fighting in Achilles armour into Patroclus's mind. He tempts him by saying that many of their great captains are wounded, and Patroclus could drive the Trojans back to the city.

21 July
So far though, the Tojans have been having it their way. They push the Greeks back to the wall enclosing the ships. Much of the chapter details the terrible battle as the Trojans try to get inside the wall.
This doesn't happen in the movie at all. The closest it comes is the scene where the Trojans roll burning tar onto the Greek ships. The movie doesn't show a wall around the ships at all.

One of the interesting thing about the book is that we're told at the beginning of the chapter that the Greeks built the wall without the appropriate sacrifices to the Gods, and that Zeus and Poseiden destroy it after Ilium was sacked.

1 August
As it looks like the Trojans are going to get through the wall, Poseidon ignores Zeus's command not to take sides, and encourages the Greeks to stand fast. Zeus had lost interest in the war, after all his attention earlier. More fickleness. There's lots more fighting over the wall, with Hector leading his troops, though he takes some time out to verbally abuse Paris again.

Agamemmnon proposes to run away by dragging some ships out to sea and leaving some of his force behind. Odysseus rebukes him firmly. Diomedes gives his parentage, and suggests they view the fight from out of range so they can encourage others to join the fight.

Now Here gets involved again, with a plot to jump Zeus's bones, and put him to sleep. Then Poseidon can continue to meddle in the war without having to worry about Zeus. Sure enough, the tide turns again. Hector gets a boulder in the chest, and has to withdraw.

3 August
Now Zeus pays attention again. He forces other Gods to heal Hector and fill him with zeal again, and to make Poseidon withdraw. While doing this he essentially reveals the rest of the story in fair detail. Oh well, so much for suspense. Hector forces the Greeks back to their ships, and tries to set them set on fire. There is much inspirational speech-making.

As near as I can tell, Zeus is just amusing himself with the death and maiming of the men on the battlefield. He knows how he wants the battle to come out, but without his attention, it might not happen. He likes to rub the other Gods and Goddess's noses in the fact that he is stronger than they, and not surprisingly, they don't like it much.

I once saw a movie that involved a group of Vikings meeting up with the Norse Gods. I don't remember anything else about the movie, but thought that casting the Gods as actual children was brilliant. And so it goes here. The men don't seem to have any choice in the affair, and the Gods only seem to care on the surface. I'd believe they cared more about their own descendents if they weren't so easily distracted.

Patroclus begs Achilles to lend his armour so he can lead a fresh force of men to drive the Trojans away from the Greek ships. Achilles is still nursing a grudge, but relents in the end. In what I see as an enormously insulting gesture, Achilles tells Patroclus not to do anything beyond relieving the ships, even if Zeus himself encourages him to lead the way to Ilium. After all, Achilles doesn't want to miss out on the glory.

Achilles summons his men and sends them off, then prays to Zeus that Patroclus is victorious. Patroclus does well for a while, then starts chasing the Trojans back to Ilium. I was waiting for an epic battle between Hector and Patroclus, and it never comes. Oh sure, Hector kills him, but that's after Apollo hit him hard enough to shake the helmet off his head, shatter his spear, drop his shield, and undo his breastplate. One Euphorbus stabbed him between the shoulders, but didn't kill him. While Patroclus is trying to retreat, Hector finds him and finishes him off with a spear thrust to the belly. Patroclus has a nice death speech, warning Hector that he's going to die soon.

So much for the penultimate fight scene in the movie, where Hector and Patroclus face each other one on one. I grant you, the movie does this part better. Hector can scarcely boast about killing Patroclus the way it happens in the book.

23 August
And you thought I'd given up. The computer was put away during one particular phase of reno work that promised to be unhappy to computer innards.

We left off with both sides fighting over Patroclus's body and Achilles's armour. It went on for a whole chapter. Enough said about that. Then Achilles is told about Patroclus's death, though he's had premonitions about it. The anguish! The weeping and wailing! The breast beating! You'd think he'd lost his only son. Once more the godesses meddle, with Achilles's mother going to get more armour for him, and Iris and Here trying to convince him to go into battle without his armour. He refuses, but does overlook the battle and yells at the fighters three times. We're to believe this gives the Trojans pause, and then the sun sets to end the fighting for the day.

Hector is given good advice to withdraw to the city in the expectation that Achilles will take to the field on the morrow, but Hector stays by the ships.

Thetis, Achilles's mother, goes to Hephaestus to get more armour made, and he happily does so. Homer spends pages describing how the shield was decorated. As I'm sure you remember, you won't find any of this in the movie.

Achilles finally unbends and is willing to let the feud end. Agamemnon agrees, and offers to pay the compensation promised by Odysseus. They discuss if it should be fetched now, and once again list it in full as it's delivered. Then they discuss if they should have breakfast before another hard days fighting. The others eat, but Achilles makes a big production of being too heart-broken, and simultaneously, too filled with the desire for revenge to eat. The Greeks finish their meal, dress for battle, and march out.

One can see why none of this happens in the movie. Modern audiences couldn't take a hero weeping and wailing like that. They expect the hero to get all stoic and go out "to do what a man's got to do."

29 August
Once more the gods meddle. Zeus assembles all the gods and godesses, and tells them they can do as they please in the war. Apollo incites Aeneas to attack Achilles, but after exchanging a great many words and insults, Poseidon spreads a mist in front of Achilles and takes Aeneas off to the fringe of battle. Who knows what Apollo was up to when Aeneas was getting the worst of it. Then it happens again when Hector and Achilles finally meet. This time it's Apollo that rescues Hector. One can't blame Achilles for being upset. He can kill all the ordinary men, but who can do anything to those that the gods protect?

In the movie, Achilles rides his chariot up to the walls of Ilium to challenge Hector. Things are different in the book. Achilles chases Hector 3 times around the city, then off into the woods. There is no epic battle; Achilles finishes him off quickly, and drags him back to the ships.There, they build a funeral pyre for Patroclus, then hold a series of athletic competitions. In the middle of a war. I suppose the Trojans are so upset by Hector's death they couldn't mount a surprise offensive.

1 September
Even after the Patroclus is burned on the pyre, every day for 11 days Achilles insists on dragging Hector around the pyre 3 times. Yet the gods protect Hector from any further damage, and even heal the damage done at the time of his death. Achilles doesn't notice, or doesn't pay attention.

Eventually the gods organize Priam's visit to Achilles to ransom Hector's body. This is held to be a courageous thing to do, but Priam is told that the gods will protect him. How much courage does it take. It plays out much like the movie, though Achilles promises to hold off the Greek forces for 12 days while they mourn and burn Hector. Then the book ends. Done. That's all.

No wonder they were at it for 9 years. There's a month off right there, and who knows how many times they took a similar break during the early parts of the war. I guess when the gods get involved in the day to day activities of your life, it doesn't pay to get so wrapped in a war that you forget to make the appropriate sacrifices.

No wonder the movie went on to show the fall of Ilium, and Achilles's death. You couldn't have a movie end as the book did. Audiences would riot.

I'm glad I read it, and thought about it in comparison to the movie. The two are the same story almost by coincidence only. In a modern world the movie can't show the actions of the gods, at least not without making it a movie about the gods and not the war. Without the capricious actions of the gods as such, it's almost impossible to explain the various twists and turns of the story. It's a tough choice for movie-makers; play the story as Homer depicts it and lose the audience, or make changes to the story and risk losing anyone that cares about The Iliad as a story. Or, as Hollywood usually does, make a wretched job of it and satisfy nobody.

As a book to read, I found The Iliad to be tough sledding in places. I had the mistaken impression at the start that it was about the war, but it's not. It's about how we are the captives of fate, and struggle as you will, you can't escape. It's about the interactions of people and gods and how the smallest action or comments can have a large effect. There was much good invective and good speeches, if one could ignore the setting.

Would I read it again, or watch the movie? Hmmm. Maybe rent it when it's out on video, just to compare to the book again, but I'm not going to go out of my way to do that. I have to admit I'm not likely to read it again, though I would probably browse through a different translation to see how it compares.

Now lets see if I go on to read about the trip home that Odysseus has.

So far, nobody has claimed the prize for guessing the author of the limerick. (earlier I had posted a limerick, but it's gone now. probably just as well.


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