Homer was the beneficiary of earlier, disparate stories, some mythical, some legendary, and some doubtless historical. Like William Shakespeare so many centuries later, although in an oral medium rather than a written one, Homer combined, rearranged, and shaped with artistic purpose these earlier narrative materials. The writing down of Homeric epic must be nearly contemporary with the advent of the Greek alphabetic script within the eighth century b.c.e., for the vocabulary retains hints of letters subsequently discarded, and the earliest inscriptions on pottery include fragments of catalectic dactylic hexameter—the heroic scansion.
The Iliad remains the first of Western war stories and the Odyssey, the greatest of adventures. Each, for all its episodic variety, is a unity. The Iliad begins with the indignant wrath of Achilles which affects the last events before the walls of Troy and ends with the replacement of wrath by a personal humanity shown to the grieving Priam, King of Troy. The Odyssey develops the adventures of Odysseus (already praised for his ingenuity in the Iliad), who left his wife and home in Ithaca twenty years before to bring Helen back from Troy, until he triumphantly returns to Ithaca and his wife, the faithful Penelope—the moral obverse of Helen. In the creation of these unities, Homer utilized a number of techniques which later poets (and prose writers) would adopt. Among these are: the announcement of an anticipated action which is then suspensefully delayed; the invocation to the muse (with which each poem begins); the beginning of the action in medias res; the consequent use of flashbacks; and telling repetition by epithet and formulas, catalogue, and the epic simile.
The simplicity and directness of Homer’s vignettes have produced some immortal images for subsequent Western artists—literary, pictorial, and plastic. Among these are the parting of Hector and Andromache with the child Astynax frightened by the horse-haired helmet of his father, the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, Priam’s visit to Achilles, the Greek leaders going to the tent of the sullen Achilles (used by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, 1601-1602, and through Shakespeare by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “Ulysses”), and even the Telemachia, the sequence of episodes which makes up the first four books of the Odyssey. These episodes and characters remind the reader that they and the rest of the poem are both poetry and educational lesson. For the Greeks and Westerners who succeeded them, Homer is both “poet” and “educator”; some have gone so far as to seek lessons in every aspect of the poems, and they piously created them when they were not to be found. This moralizing bent has often led to rampant allegorizing. It is one thing to claim, in however a reductionist spirit, the Iliad as a textbook for governors and the Odyssey as a guide to household economy, but quite another to find anagogical and tropological meaning in verses singularly free from such designed levels of significance. Such, however, has been part of the interpretive history of these epics.
Those not understanding the wholeness of each poem have found inconsistencies and contradictions; book 10 of the Iliad (the Doloneia) and book 11 of the Odyssey (the summoning of the disembodied personalities in Hades) looked like interpolations. Yet in large the poems are most carefully structured, for the oral nature of their composition obviously did not preclude subtle balancing and contrasting.
The Iliad begins with the wrath of Achilles at the injustice done to him by Agamemnon and ends with the clemency of Achilles, who returns to Priam the body of Trojan Hector slain and dishonored by Achillean wrath. In between, the reader is shown the effects of Achilles’ withdrawal from the fight before the walls of Troy. Books 2 to 9 present the preparation for battle, the triumph of Diomedes, an only slightly less powerful Achilles, and the setback of the Greeks, whose leaders in book 9 come in an embassy to Achilles, who still refuses to fight, although in his refusal there are signs of hope.
Book 10, sometimes viewed as an interlude, involves the slaying of the Trojan spy, Dolon, and the capture by Diomedes and Odysseus...
(The entire section is 1802 words.)