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Bad News from Troy

September 3, 2002

It was going to be a short, easy war. King Menelaus of Sparta had a domestic problem: his beautiful wife Helen had run off with his handsome guest, the Trojan prince Paris. So he called in his chips, summoning other Greek rulers — all former suitors of Helen who owed him their fealty — to help him recover her. Surely Troy — a rich, civilized but isolated and effete city — could not withstand their combined forces for long. It would soon see reason and give up Helen.

But Troy proved unexpectedly stubborn and tough. The war stretched on for a decade before it finally fell. The Greek victory came at enormous cost, and the lives of the victors had been disrupted in myriad ways nobody had imagined.

The Trojan War, with all its dark lessons about the ways of Fate, is the central subject of ancient Greek literature, beginning with its first known and greatest work, the Iliad. The tremendous epic covers only a few weeks near the end of the war, artfully recapitulating and foreshadowing all that had come before and all that would follow. The Odyssey, Greek and Roman tragedy, Virgil’s Aeneid, and even Medieval literature would add many episodes and variations to the basic story. So would Shakespeare, Racine, and later dramatists; the story has a permanent fascination, even in ages of far more devastating wars.

[Breaker quote: Homer’s timeless truth]Nobody knows whether there really was a Trojan War. The Greeks assumed that it was a historical fact; later Europeans doubted that Troy had even existed; modern archaeology has proved that it did, but can’t determine whether it was destroyed by war or other causes.

The mystery of the Trojan War is matched by the mystery of the poet called Homer. Did a single poet write the Iliad and the Odyssey? Were they originally written down at all, or were they composed by an illiterate bard or bards and copied later? Were both poems the work of multiple poets?

Scholars can only surmise the answers. The Greeks generally believed that Homer was a single blind poet, possibly from the island of Chios, but these are only legends. The scholars agree with the ancients that the Iliad was probably earlier than the Odyssey, which, after all, concerns Odysseus’s postwar wanderings. If so, it is one of the few sequels in literature that is worthy of its predecessor.

That may be the best argument for single authorship. It seems unlikely that two colossal poets should live so close in time, using the same language, unless they were Siamese twins. I don’t read Greek, so I can’t pretend to judge the subtleties. But even reading translations of both poems, I’m struck by the consistency of the world they present. One has the overwhelming impression of a single poet extending his own story over many years.

No doubt the legends of the Trojan War were already old when Homer took them up. But he put his own stamp on them in the Iliad, then again in the Odyssey. The later poem assumes the earlier in every important detail. Many of the same characters, especially the gods, reappear and behave in the same ways. If the two great poems had been the work of two great poets, the second would have put a different and distinct stamp on his poem; there would be no doubt of separate authorship. That’s my two cents’ worth, anyway.

For a marvelous discussion of Homer and all these associated questions, one can hardly do better than to read Bernard Knox’s long introduction to Robert Fagles’s acclaimed translation of the Iliad (Penguin). Not only is Knox a renowned classical scholar; his literary appreciation of the poem is marvelously sensitive and profound. Even better is Simone Weil’s stunning essay “The Iliad: The Poem of Force.”

Knox and Weil leave no doubt that Homer, whoever he was, remains, and will always remain, truly timeless. Their praise is not the platitudinous compliment customary in salutes to the classics. They really show that Homer has something to tell us — a permanently disturbing insight into the roles of force, slavery, and death in human existence, expressed in graphic yet poignant images of brutal violence. If literature is “news that stays new,” Homer will always be bad news for optimists and reformers.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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