Just picked up the Iliad today after long absence–it’s a good book to turn to when I find myself growing impatient with all the other options at hand, and especially when I find myself growing impatient with the prose of all the other options at hand. Because Homer crafts words like no one’s business, at least if Fagles’ translation is reasonably true to them.
But Zeus flung Strife on Achaea’s fast ships,
the brutal goddess flaring his storm-shield,
his monstrous sign of war in both her fists.
She stood on Odysseus’ huge black-bellied hull …
There Strife took her stand, raising her high-pitched cry,
great and terrible, lashing the fighting fury
in each Achaean’s heart–no stopping them now,
mad for war and struggle.
Agamemnon armors up (in great detail) and, his men–all thoughts of returning home gone–follow him. Athena and Hera cheer the Greeks on with some thunder, but otherwise manage to not interfere.
Hector leads Trojans out, too, in less detail but with arguably more powerful prose:
Hector bore his round shield in the forefront, blazing out
like the Dog Star through the clouds, all withering fire,
then plunging back in the cloud-rack massed and dark–
so Hector ranged on, now flaring along the front,
now shouting his order back toward the rear,
all of him armed in bronze aflash like lightning
The armies fight. A lot.
… the pressure of combat locked them head to head,
lunging liker wolves, and Strife with wild groans
exulted to see them, glaring down at the melee,
Strife alone of immortals hovering over the fighters.
Strife’s getting into this, no surprise. Zeus is having fun watching, too. The other gods are, one assumes, silently glaring at Zeus.
So Agamemnon kills many people. In great detail. This being his day of glory and all.
Think how a lion, mauling the soft weak young
of a running deer, clamped in his massive jaws,
cracks their backbones with a snap–he’s stormed in,
invading the lair to tear their tender hearts out
and the mother doe, even if she’s close by,
what can she do to save her fawns?
I can’t honestly tell if we’re supposed to admire Agamemnon here or not.
Even as the Trojans fall, Zeus keeps Hector safe. Eventually he also sends Hector an IM (Iris Message, thank you Rick Riordan) telling Hector to stay out of Agamemnon’s way until the latter gets wounded.
Finally Agamemnon goes up against a guy named Iphidamas, and kills him in great detail. Iphidamas has an older brother, Coon, who goes after Agamemnon in turn, and Coon gets Agamemnon with his spear, just below the elbow and all down the forearm. Coon then tries to drag his little brother’s body away, but Agamemnon lops Coon’s head off, and it tumbles down onto Iphidamas’ corpse.
Okay, so much for the admiration for Agamemnon.
But Agamemnon soon discovers that being injured hurts, and he races off the field. Hector, who was paying attention with Iris delivered that message, sees his opportunity and jumps into the battle. Agamemnon is long gone, but Hector goes on to kill many men in a reasonable amount of detail himself, leaving the reader wondering why this can’t be Hector’s Day of Glory, too. Hector even charges Diomedes, and Diomedes sends a well-aimed spear straight for Hector’s head. It’s a can’t-possibly-miss shot, but Hector’s wearing a can’t-possibly-be-hit helmet from Apollo, and apparently an immovable object is more powerful than an irresistible force after all. The blow glances off; Diomedes cusses a bit and stalks off looking for other people to kill. Diomedes is also having a Day of Glory, as it turns out, but this being Diomedes and all, that’s hardly worth commenting on.
Paris shoots and gets Diomedes with an arrow in the foot, crows about how much he rocks for it, and is soundly mocked for shooting like a girl. Anyone could get someone in the foot, after all, right? (Achilles, are you listening? Achilles? But Achilles is still nursing his anger back in his tent, and I still can’t entirely blame him for it.)
Paris shows them later, though, when he manages a shoulder shot and injures Machaon, a Greek healer. While Nestor gets Machaon away in Nestor’s chariot, the reader is left wondering why the Greeks would put their healers right out on the battlefield, not as field medics, but as fighters themselves, rather than doing their best to protect them so that they can, well, heal. It sounds like the Greeks might have been having some second thoughts about this strategy themselves, as one of them admits, “a good healer is worth a troop of other men.” Oops.
Nestor, being Nestor, urges Patroclus in great detail and at great length and with much reminiscing about the past to urge Achilles to get his butt back out on the battlefield.
Nestor: “Or if that fails, Patroclus, you could just wear Achilles armor and lead his Myrmidons into battle.”
Reader: “Wait, that was Nestor’s idea?”
Yet even as I stared open-jawed at Nestor, the narrative made me understand, for the first time, just what a hard place Patroclus was in, and why Nestor’s suggestion was so tempting. Because as Patroclus heads back to Achilles’ tent, bearing Nestor’s pleas, he meets an injured fighter, Euryplus, limping away from the battle with an arrow in his thigh, blood yet flowing around it.
And moved at the sight, the good soldier Patroclus
burst out in grief with a flight of winging words,
“Poor men! Lords of the Argives, O my captains!
How doomed you are, look–far from your loved ones
and native land–to glut with your shining fat
the wild dogs of battle here in Troy …
But come, tell me, Eurypylus, royal fighter,
can the Achaeans, somehow, still hold monstrous Hector?–
or must they all die now, beaten down by his spear?”
Struggling with his wound, Euryplus answered,
“No hope, Patroclus, Prince. No bulward left,
They’ll all be hurled back to the black ships …
“Impossible, Eurypylus, hero, what shall we do?
I am on my way with a message for Achilles,
our great man of war–the plan that Nestor,
Achaea’s watch and ward, urged me to report.
But I won’t neglect you, even so, with such a wound.”
And bracing the captain, arm around his waist,
he helped him toward his shelter. An aide saw them
and put some oxhides down. Patroclus stretched him out,
knelt with a knife and cut the sharp, stabbing arrow
out of Euryplus’ thigh and washed the wound clean
of the dark running blood with clear warm water.
Pounding it in his palms, he crushed a bitter root
and covered over the gash to kill his comrade’s pain,
a cure that fought of every kind of pain …
and the wound dried and the flowing blood stopped.
And even if we didn’t know it before, we know, in this moment, that Patroclus is doomed.
Because of course he’s going to wear Achilles’ armor. What else could he possibly do?