Monthly Archives: March 2012

Book Five: The Iliad of Homer

The fifth book I read was Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. I have a soft spot for epic poems (two of the first five books I read were epics). It has something to do with their structure and my absolute fascination that someone would tell this story from memory just by evoking the muses, but epic poems might be one of my favorite styles of writing. When it comes to The Iliad many people mistake it for the story of Troy’s destruction when in reality The Iliad is the story of Achilles’ wrath, beginning with the insult from Agamemnon to his returning the body of Hector to Priam after he killed him and dragged him behind his chariot.. The story begins almost ten years into the Trojan War where we begin to meet our epic’s characters. I’d like to compare the Homer poem to one of my favorite, albeit maybe a little bit guiltily, movie: Troy. While the movie does follow the book in general there are some major differences, some for the sake of making the movie an appropriate length and hold the interest of the viewer and then there are some head-scratching differences.

The first major difference between the poem and the movie occurs right out of the gate. In the movie Troy Agamemnon (sometimes known as Atrides in the book) leads his army into Thessaly to build his army and conquer new land. This quest we later find out was part of unifying Greece, but history textbooks tell us nobody, not even Agamemnon unified Greece until Alexander the Great did so. Nonetheless in the movie the King of Kings and the King of Thessaly agree to decide the contest “in the old way,” a one on one contest between the two greatest fighters in each army. Thessaly sends forward the giant Boagrius while Agamemnon sends forth Achilles (after he needs to be gathered from his camp). Achilles kills Boagrius easily and asks the remainder of the Thessaly army “Is there no one else?” in a really awesome cinematic scene. However, this not only does not take place in the Iliad but would occur nearly ten years prior to the start of Homer’s epic poem. In reality (or what Homer gives us as reality) The Iliad begins nine plus years into the war. Furthermore Achilles is the leader of the Myrmaidons who, like Achilles himself hails from Thessaly and Achilles’ father Peleus was the King of Thessaly (except in the film).

After the great battle scene in the movie we meet some more major characters: Menelaus King of Sparta (And no it’s not Gerard Butler), Helen soon to be the Helen of Troy but at this moment is Queen of Sparta, Hector the eldest son of King Priam of Troy and the greatest warrior of Troy, and Paris (also known as Alexander) the soon to be catalyst of the Trojan War and also Prince of Troy. Menelaus toasts the two Trojan princes for completing a peace pact between Troy and Sparta, but soon after Paris sneaks off with Helen, has his way with her and convinces her to join him back to Troy. Obviously since The Iliad begins ten years into the war how Helen ended up in Troy is not part of the story but in other works on the subject we know that Helen ran off to Troy with Paris when Menelaus was away from Sparta and not from right under his nose. Also Hector never visited Sparta so the whole peace pact feast and celebration between the prince and king never took place. Also Helen had a daughter named Hermione by Menelaus before she ran off to Troy with Paris.

Now the Greeks have arrived in Troy and begin battling with the Trojans. We see in the big budget Hollywood film no mention of any divine intervention while the Homer epic is centered around it. The Gods in Homer have chosen sides and play a major role right from Book I. When the poem begins the Greeks have sacked a Trojan city and claimed two beautiful maids as prizes, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon claims Chryseis as his prize and the great Achilles Breseis. Breseis’ name should be familiar to those who have seen the movie as she is portrayed as a Trojan priestess for the sun god Apollo and Hector’s cousin. She is neither in the poem. In the poem Chryseis’ father offers Agamemnon a huge ransom for his daughter’s return which is refused. After he and his daughter prey to Apollo, he sends a plague down on the Greeks forcing Agamemnon to return Chryseis. Well, the King of this army cannot let his prize go and watch a soldier keep his so Agamemnon claims Breseis for himself angering Achilles. This is similar to the movie only in the fact that Achilles fury is derived over the loss of his spoils from war. In both the movie and the poem Achilles sits out many of the beginning battles entering only when Hector kills Patroclus.

The death of Patroclus is a little different from the book to the movie. Firstly Patroclus is not Achilles’ younger cousin, he is not related to Achilles and is older than him but is a beloved friend. The scene in the movie shows what appears to be Achilles leading the Myrmaidon into battle ultimately squaring off against Hector who after slitting his throat is so distraught calls an end to the battle. In reality, or Homeric reality Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor at the request of Odysseus and Nestor and the approval or Achilles to only hold the Trojans from taking the shore. He was told not to pursue any Trojans, and to stay on the fringes of the battle. Patroclus is proving to be deadly in battle killing many Trojans including Zeus’ mortal son Sarpedon.  Patroclus then disobeys Achilles’ orders and chases after Hector all the way to the Trojan gates where Zeus then decides to seal Patroclus’ fate for killing his son. Apollo convinces Hector to charge Patroclus and the Greeks, but during that charge the driver of Hector’s chariot is killed by Patroclus. There is a huge fight over the driver’s armor and in the skirmish Apollo sneaks up on Patroclus and wounds him and Hector easily finishes Patroclus off. This shows how direct an action in the book the gods take and how in the movie the screenwriters chose to ignore the gods and how they got around a major scene in the book. Also after Patroclus’ death in the book Achilles killed twelve Trojans to burn with the body, so the short term peace that Hector requests over Patroclus’ body on the battlefield just didn’t happen.

There were more deaths that took place in the movie Troy that either didn’t happen in the Iliad or happened differently. For example Great Ajax (in the Iliad) simply Ajax in the movie as they didn’t include the second Ajax, was killed in an epic one on one battle with Hector. The movie did do a good job of portraying Great Ajax’s near godlike fighting ability and strength in this battle but he in fact was not killed by Hector or by anyone else. Ajax committed suicide in a fit of rage after he was not awarded Achilles’ armor following his death. It was commonplace for combatants at that time to fight for fallen men’s armor if it was better than their own regardless if they fought opposed or along side them. Hector also did not kill Menelaus either, in fact Menelaus survived the war, got Helen back and the couple was visited by Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) ten years after the completion of the Trojan War. Agamemnon also was not killed by Berseus as was portrayed in the film. Agamemnon survived the war only to return home and be killed by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra almost immediately upon his return.

Another instance of divine intervention that was overlooked in the movie Troy was the one on one battle between Paris and Menelaus. This battle was supposed to end the war after ten long years of battle in the book, however the movie portrayed it as a way to avoid war and ultimately a catalyst to a major campaign. In the movie Paris is wounded and just before Menelaus delivers a death blow Paris cowardly crawls behind his brother Hector’s feet. Menelaus then attempts to deliver death’s blow with or without Hector standing in the way but in the process Hector drives a sword through his gut, infuriating Agamemnon to charge the Torjan walls and eventually retreating. In the Iliad Paris does challenge Menelaus but the battle goes a little differently. After not being able to kill each other with spears Menelaus breaks his sword over Paris’ helmet. While Menelaus is dragging Paris through the dirt the goddess Aphrodite breaks the strap to his helmet and the scoops him off of the battlefield and delivers him to his bed behind the walls and then summons Helen to join him. After Helen chastises Paris she lays in bed with him while back on the battlefield the Greeks believe they have won the battle thus ending the war and Menelaus earning Helen back but the Trojans disagree and neither side backs down.

The last major difference is the very end of the movie. The famous Trojan Horse did not contain Achilles like it did in the movie. He was killed by Paris before the idea of the horse was thought of, but his son Neoptolemos participated in the final sacking of Troy. The scene in the movie during the sacking where Paris gives the sword of troy to a boy named Aeneas to lead Hector’s wife Andromache, their son Astyanax, Helen and other Trojans through a secret passage to restart a Trojan civilization did happen, but the characters were much different. Aeneas was not a boy but in fact was a great warrior that battled Achilles during the war. Andromache was not in the escape since she was captured by the Greeks and enslaved. Astyanax was also not there because Odysseus bashed his head in and then tossed him off of the walls of the city. Paris did not give Aeneas the sword since he was killed during the sacking of Troy by an arrow. Helen obviously wasn’t there because as before mentioned she accompanied Menelaus back to Sparta but no before she took up with a different Trojan after Paris was killed. In reality Helen wasn’t that great of a person she was more trouble than she was worth and a little easy. The only real similarity between the ending was that Aeneas lead a group of Trojans out of Troy to eventually form Rome.

Despite these differences the movie Troy did hold to the general feel of the Iliad. They did kill off some characters in the war who died differently or at different times, and for the sake of continuity had the war begin and end in a short period of time. They also took the liberty of allowing Helen to be a “good guy” in some ways, allowing Paris to survive the war as well as Hector’s family since the real ending is a bit gruesome and not very Hollywood friendly. I also selected a handful of scenes in an hour and a half movie that deviate from the book so there are some similarities. I really suggest watching Troy since it is a fun movie and I think Brad Pitt plays a good Achilles. I also really suggest reading the Iliad in the Pope translation but be prepared from some viscous battle scenes and a story that picks up in the middle and doesn’t really give too much back story. The book also doesn’t end at the end of the war because remember the story is about the wrath of Achilles and not the Trojan War and Achilles wrath ends when he decides to return Hector’s body to his people. Also we know through heavy foreshadowing that Achilles will die very soon, even if we don’t get to read the exact account. All and all a fantastic read, a good movie but don’t expect the movie to really stand up to the book (they never really do though). 

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Book Four: Aesop’s Fables

After struggling through Dante’s Divine Comedies I picked out a much easier and shorter, but no less enjoyable book. Many of Aesops fables I knew of even if I wasn’t sure they were considered Aesop’s. There is The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, known as The Man and His Goose, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, known as The Shepherd’s Boy among others. There are 100 Fables that make up this version re-written by Munro Leaf and each were as morally delightful as the last. Aesops Fables are world renowned for teaching us quick moral lessons through short sometimes funny anecdotes, but nobody really knows who Aesop is, or if he was even a singular person. Ironically enough there is a Fable that goes along with Aesop’s Fables and it tells the story of how Aesop came to telling his stories.

In 600 B.C. in Greece there lived a man named Iadmon who owned a black slave. In those days not all slaves were black but those that were came from Ethiopia so this slave was simply know as Ethiop or Aesop. Aesop had an unfortunate knack for finding himself in trouble with his master; however he was smarter than most and was able to talk his way out of trouble by telling the sage tales that we have come to know in their collected works as the Fables of Aesop.

Many of Aesop’s tales were simple enough to decipher even though he used plants and animals mainly as his characters but his master Iadmon was a fool. Perhaps because of his foolishness he became very prideful of his storytelling slave and took him to the town to show him off. This continued until one day one of Iadmon’s friends offered to buy Aesop from him. Aesop was no physical specimen, he was unfit for hard labor had a squashed in face and was hunchbacked but the man paid Iadmon full price nonetheless (something I’m sure Iadmon regretted until his dying day).

By this time Aesop’s fables have been traveling from person to person, though nobody bothered to write them down. Sadly Aesop too had been traveling from person to person until he found himself in the ownership of the Emperor Croesus. The Emperor sought to use Aesop’s sage tongue to act as an ambassador to Delphi and to distribute sums of money to the Delphian. When they came to a disagreement one day Aesop decided he would distribute the money no more until an agreement was made. This angered the Delphian and since they could not come to an agreement they took to force. In one of the first ever recorded lynch mobs the Delphian pushed Aesop from a cliff and that was the end of Aesop. However, his fables had been passed from mouth to mouth for years and in the early third century A.D. were finally written down. They have been translated and updated to modern language countless times but the stories remain the same and Aesop’s sage wisdom was preserved from the same fate his earthly body was destined.

This version of Aesop’s Fables was updated by Munro Leaf, and if that name is familiar to you it is because he is the author of one of the most celebrated children’s works: Ferdinand the Bull. The story of Ferdinand is about a bull who would rather smell the flowers in pasture then go into the ring and fight with the bullfighters. Leaf brought a great modernization to the stories where they are easy for a child to follow and understand the message but you do not lose the fact that these are ancient stories. One of my favorites was The Ass in the Lion’s Skin. It went something like this:

“An Ass one day found a Lion’s skin and, being a stupid creature he put it on and ran through the woods and meadows scaring the life out of all the flocks and herds. There was so much excitement and terror that the Ass thought he was quite remarkable. Pretty soon he met his owner and thought, “Well, here’s where I scare him too.” But his master saw his long ears sticking out and recognized him. So the master picked up a good big stick and beat a lesson into the foolish head – that, Lion Skin or no Lion Skin, he was still just a stupid Ass. The point –> Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. Someone is sure to find out”

These stories are also a reinforcement of something I wholeheartedly believe and that is it is imperative to read to children. Not all things read to children are as blatantly moralistic as Aesop’s  Fables but children take a great deal from the stories they hear. I can remember my older cousin telling me stories about a key she wore around her neck and all the magical places she could go because that key opened the door. This story wasn’t so much of a lesson or a cautionary tale but it made me open my imagination and allowed me to flex my creative muscles at a young age that I believe really comes in handy later in life.

I know when I have children I will be reading them a great deal of stories and books weather it is before bed or just at random times during the day. I also know that eventually when they are somewhat mature enough to understand the messages (even though they will be reinforced before then) I will present Aesop’s Fables to them and hopefully they will be able to take some great things from them. This little book is full of moral lessons such as treat others as you wish to be treated, and don’t make promises you can’t keep, but has some that are a little darker such as some people aren’t worth helping, and people who seem too eager to be friendly should be watched the closest. The stories are quick and fun and each give a little tidbit worth remembering, there’s not much more of a fulfilling read than that.

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