Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 3: The Trojans)

Book 1 of the Iliad throws us right into the middle of an argument in the middle of a war somewhere in the middle East. The modern reader is plunked into the middle of a culture that seems alien and yet also vaguely familiar. The Greeks are aggressive, possessive and argumentative. The aggression of the Greeks was supposedly triggered by the abduction of Helen from Sparta. The very idea that the Trojans would dare to make off with a Greek woman! And a Spartan queen at that! But in Book 3 we're finally introduced to the Trojans themselves. They don't seem like thieves. If anything, they seem more civilized than the Greeks. The Greeks invaded the coasts of Asia Minor supposedly to rescue an abducted queen. But in the process they've abducted quite a few women themselves. Agamemnon and Achilles are trading captured girl-prizes like pawns in a chess game. And it’s likely that Helen voluntarily ran off with Paris. Now Menelaos wants his wife back, regardless of who she would rather live with.
Those are the major players for the Greeks. What about the Trojans? Who are the major players for them? Above all, the Trojans have Hector as their military leader. We get our first glimpse of Hector as he reprimands his brother, Alexandros (Paris): "You bad-luck charm! Paris, the great lover, a gallant sight! You should have had no seed and dies unmarried. Would to god you had! Better than living this way in dishonor, in everyone's contempt. Now they can laugh, Greeks who thought you were a first-rate man, a champion going by looks; but you have no backbone, no staying power is in you." Paris is the one who has "stolen" Helen away from the Greeks. Whether he abducted her or whether it was her own idea isn't made clear by Homer. It sounds like she chose to run away with Paris. In any case, it doesn't matter to the Greeks. They hold Paris fully responsible. Whether Helen wanted to go with him is irrelevant. The important point is that Paris has insulted a Greek king by taking his wife. And the Greeks want revenge.
Our first glimpse of Paris is catching him slinking away from a one-on-one fight with Menelaos; and for good reason. Menelaos would have killed him. Paris isn't really a coward. But he's a lover, not a fighter. He responds to Hector's reprimand with honesty and even a certain amount of charm: "Ah, Hector, this harshness is no more than just... My own gifts are from pale-gold Aphrodite. Do not taunt me for them. Glorious things the gods bestow are not to be despised, being as the gods will: wishing will not bring them." Basically what Paris is saying is this: don't blame me. I was born this way. I'm handsome and women like my face and my personality. These are gifts from the gods. I didn't ask for them. But that's why Helen loves me instead of Menelaos. He doesn't have these gifts. He wasn't born with them and asking for them now would be pointless. Menelaos is an ugly and crude man. These things are "as the gods will."
What would be the modern response to this kind of talk? Paris is just being honest. He is, in fact, handsome. And he does, in fact, have a way with women. But he isn't bragging about his own personal powers. He attributes them to the gods or what the modern world might call just plain old good luck. This situation does lead to interesting questions though. Are we responsible for the way we are? Or are we pretty much born that way? This is a question that is just as important today as it was back then. The technology may have changed but modern folks still mull over the same problems the Greeks faced: who's in charge? How should we punish our enemies? What should be done with wayward wives or possessive husbands? And we ask the same questions the Trojans asked: what do I do with a brother who isn't living right? How do I use the gifts I've been given? These questions aren't just for ancient Greeks and Trojans.


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