Great War Epic
Imagine camping on a beach on a start-lit night, and as you’re sitting around the camp fire, Homer tells a story of a great war that happened on the very same shore a long, long time ago.
There were warriors as numerous as the stars in the heaven and grains of sand on the beach, but the majority of them were doomed to die because of the will of Zeus, the god of Olympus. No truce could be made. They could not escape their fate to kill or be killed.
On the one hand, Homer’s use of rich imagery evokes in me a feeling of awe at the heroic grandeur of the war and the dramatic intensity of single combats (like the raging of the sea and the prairie fire), on the other hand, he shows the brutality of war by depicting how precious young lives were destroyed by the spear and the sword, leaving behind their loved ones. His graphic depictions of single combats with all the gory details often make me grimace.
As a counterpoint, Homer gives another perspective of the war, a divine perspective. The Olympian gods watched the battles from on high. Sometimes they amused themselves as the Romans watching gladiators fight till death in the Coliseum, other times they would intervene, as though moving the pieces on the chessboard. The gods were not impartial, however, but took sides and even fought among themselves, providing a comic relief.
Lives of Heroes
Under such extreme circumstances, there were many memorable characters that stood out, heroes and heroines, with strength and power, courage and cowardice, craft and skill, love and tenderness, wit and humor all on full display. Unlikely friendships are formed during single combats, and deadly enemies brought together by their common fate.
Achilles was the main hero, who was born of a goddess, most handsome among men and glorious in battle., yet he chose death and everlasting fame over a long contented life. Hector was a hero in his own right. He was the chief protector of the city of his father, and, though he knew he would be killed by Achilles, he never shrank from his duty and honor and fought courageously till the end.
After Hector’s death, the gods preserved his body and honor against Achilles, who killed Hector in revenge for his best friend but later granted Hector’s body to his grieving father, acknowledging that they were all suffering the same fate at the hands of the gods. Achilles also organized games and gave out prizes at his friend’s funeral. As tragic as life was, it was still worth living and celebrating.
Some themes in the Iliad might have been adopted by J.R.R.Tolkien in “Lord of the Rings”. For example, when Hector bade his last farewell to his wife and son, he lamented the cruel fate that would befall her after his own death, but then he lifted up his son and prayed that his son would become more glorious than himself. In “Lord of the Rings”, Elrond warned his daughter Arwen of the hopeless future he foresaw for her after her husband’s death of either battle or old age, but Arwen saw her son in a vision and said, “There is always hope”.