Analysis of the `Iliad' sees values beneath the valor
The Mortal Hero, An Introduction to Homer's Iliad, by Seth L. Schein. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 223 pp. $22. Homeric scholarship has traditionally developed in two parallel directions: one investigating linguistic, textual, anthropological, and archaeological details and problems; the other puzzling out the meanings of Homer's stories, the imaginative, conceptual, and formal values of Odysseus' long journey home, and the struggle of Achilles and Hector at Troy.
The first direction has been pursued in a more or less scientific manner, with facts established or disestablished. The second is interpretive, and therefore much wider in scope, bringing the thought and felt experience of Homer's imagined past into some understandable relationship to the thought and feeling of a constantly changing present.
Seth L. Schein's book moves gracefully and efficiently in the second direction, interpreting the ``Iliad'' with maximum clarity and intelligence. The book begins with an evenhanded and very useful synopsis of the present state of scholarly argumentation about the place of the ``Iliad'' in the literary tradition of ancient Greece. Taking up the famous question of authorship, Schein presents a thorough summary of the position that the poems were created by performing bards who elaborated on formulas for narration passed down from previous generations. Through careful analysis of both the ``Iliad's'' narrative and its internal conceptual consistency, Schein makes the persuasive counterargument -- that the epic of Troy's fall was conceived as a unified work by a single author.
A chapter on the gods of Olympus and one on the literary treatments of war, death, and heroism in the tradition preceding Homer's epic establish the basic religious and social contexts modern readers need to understand Achilles' behavior, which is the primary emphasis of Schein's interpretation.
In Schein's reading, the contradictory impulses that govern Achilles' refusal to fight embody a tragic criticism of warfare -- ``that a hero achieves greatness and meaning in life only through the destruction of other would-be heroes and through his own destruction.''
Achilles, in his wrathful isolation from the war effort, in his maniacally vindictive return to it, and in his noble conciliations (especially with Priam once Hector is slaughtered), is doomed to ruin. Schein puts it most effectively when he writes, ``In Achilles' great speech to Odysseus, Homer has painted a powerful portrait of absolute brilliance and excellence having to come to terms with a world that is not commensurate with it.''
Mortality makes and unmakes value in the ``Iliad,'' and Achilles' long struggle with that tragic law is Homer's most potent meaning, and for Schein, the most important knowledge his book offers.
Theoharis C. Theoharis teaches on the literature faculty at MIT.