The Mortal Hero

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Seth L. Schein’s The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad” is a work that endeavors to accommodate the needs of two diverse groups. Although its primary audience is the body of nonspecialists who are obliged to read the Homeric epics in translation, the work also aims at providing classical scholars with a comprehensive survey of contemporary research on the Iliad. Anyone who hopes to succeed in writing concurrently on both levels needs to possess expository skills of a high order, and Schein more than measures up to the task. All passages from the Iliad that are used to support his analysis were, moreover, translated into English by the author himself for the sake of providing the reader with a more literal, and hence more accurate, rendition of Homer’s lines than is available in other sources. The opening chapters focus on the technique of oral composition, the function of the gods in the Iliad, and the concept of heroism among the ancient Greeks. These sections are followed by an extensive analysis of Achilles’ character, and the concluding chapter is devoted to a discussion of Hector and the Trojans. Schein not only synthesizes the views of many other classical scholars on each of these topics with great expertise but also supplements their findings with numerous perceptive insights of his own in the process.

Although the Iliad and the Odyssey were widely recognized as the products of an oral tradition as early as the first half of the eighteenth century, the technical procedures used in oral composition as such were never adequately understood prior to the field research that was conducted among illiterate Yugoslav bards by the American philologist Milman Parry between 1933 and 1935. It was his analysis of the formulaic character of oral poetry which first connected the extensive repetition of groups of words in Homeric verse with the metrical requirements of lines composed in dactylic hexameter. Perhaps the most accessible account of these findings and their implications for the study of folk epics is contained in a work written by Parry’s colleague Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960). Schein himself, in the process of explaining the manner in which the system of formulas operates in Homeric verse for his own readers, underscores the modifications and extentions of Parry’s analysis that have been set forth by a new generation of classical scholars. It is, for example, argued that Parry overemphasized the mere metrical utility of such epithets as the phrase “of the shining helm,” which Homer repeatedly attaches to Hector’s name, at the expense of their associative value. Schein thus appears to suggest that Homeric epithets may actually serve the same function as do leitmotifs in the music of Richard Wagner or in the writings of Thomas Mann. By the same token, in his view, the originality of Homer is in no way diminished by the fact that he was constrained to work within the formulaic system of oral poetry.

Parry’s discovery of the formula had an enormous impact on the Homeric Question and was largely responsible for the sudden demise of the view that both the Iliad and the Odyssey, in their present forms, are essentially collections of shorter poems by different poets which first came into being as the result of a process of editing that took place sometime during the sixth century b.c.e. Those who held this view are known as Analysts, and it was this school of thought that prevailed among classical scholars in the opening decades of the twentieth century. A serious shortcoming in Schein’s discussion of the Analysts lies in his failure to explain precisely why this viewpoint proved to be so persuasive once it was promulgated in Friedrich August Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795). Although Schein makes a passing reference to this treatise, he never discloses the set of assumptions that led this renowned German philologist to his conclusion. In essence, Wolf held that the original versions of the Homeric poems were composed orally during the tenth century b.c.e. and that the use of alphabetic writing among the Greeks did not take root until the sixth century b.c.e. Since the memorization of poems the length of the Iliad and Odyssey seemed to be beyond the powers of the human mind, he concluded that both epics must have originally consisted of a number of shorter poetic narratives which were later unified by editors living in literate times. Once having come to this conclusion, Wolf was able to find much additional evidence to corroborate his thesis. Parry, for his part, decisively discredited the notion that poets operating within an oral tradition need to memorize the songs which they perform before the public. Once a poet has committed the requisite traditional formulae to memory, moreover, he is able to compose poems of almost any length at will.

Two further developments also contributed to undermining the viability of the position espoused by the Analysts. First, textural analysis of the Homeric epics themselves has yielded convincing evidence that they may actually have been composed during the eighth century b.c.e. Second, inscriptions employing the Greek alphabet that were found on the island of Thera (also called Santorini) have been estimated to date from the first half of the eighth century b.c.e...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)