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What's the point of the Iliad? (or why book 24 is actually the climax)

Now I love me some Homeric poetry.

But I'll also be the first to admit that the actual story structure of the Iliad is more than a little weird.

It starts right in the middle of the Trojan War and ends still in the middle of the Trojan War.

By contrast, the Odyssey technically starts in the last year of Odysseus journey home.

But we get the whole 10 years through flashbacks, and that makes sense.

But then, Iliad starts in the ninth year of the Trojan War,

and the story only takes place over a handful of weeks.

And it's not even really a case of let's skip the faff and get straight to the good stuff,

because the Iliad doesn't even really include the good stuff.

Troy remains distinctly unsacked by the end.

What gives, right?

What on Earth is up with the weird end of this poem?

And why does it finish before the end of the Trojan War?

Basically I'm asking that if the focus of this poem is so narrow

What is the Iliad even about?

Well... See, the Iliad and Odyssey weren't the only two stories in the basket of epic Greek poetry.

They were by far the most special, which is part of why we miraculously have them intact to this day.

But there were actually half a dozen other

poems that told the other parts of the Trojan War that aren't included in the Iliad in the Odyssey.

It's called the Epic Cycle.

And it was likely part of the broader aural poetic tradition that came out of the Trojan War,

and developed alongside the Homeric poems that we know and love.

Where as Homer's works or each 24 books long,

these poems are mostly in the 2 to 6 book range.

To give you a sense of what the rest of the full epic cycle actually looked like here's a brief rundown:

So first there was the Cypria which told the preamble to the conflict with the judgment of Paris, and the stealing of Helen,

and also the first entire nine years of the war for good measure,

That's honestly a lot right off the bat, which is why it's the third largest poem in the entire cycle at 11 books.

Then after that, there's the Iliad doing it's weird...usual...Iliad thing,

but after that we have the Aethiopis,

which among other things contains the death of Achilles.

Then we have the little Iliad or as I like to call it The Iliad one and a half

Which is mostly just the Greeks building the Trojan horse.

Next up is the Iliou Persis or the sack of Troy.

During which Troy gets, well... sacked.

Then there's the Nostoi where all of the Greek heroes return home from Troy.

And also Agamemnon gets an axe to the head, which is always a win in my book.

And Following the events of the Odyssey where we learned that Odysseus is a bad navigator and Poseidon is a horrid backseat driver.

There's one last little ditty called the Telogony where Odysseus gets killed by his illegitimate son Telegonus.

Fear not, because I am just as confused about that one as you are.

I personally like to loop in Virgil's Aeneid as part of the cycle on account of how independently important it is

and also how it ties in to the broader plot,

but it's about a thousand years removed from the original poems and it's in Latin so it's really its own thing.

With the exceptions of the Iliad, and the Odyssey which we still have in their original Homeric texts

because sometimes history is kind to us, the other works are pretty much entirely gone.

We know about them and still have the broad story elements because there's a surprising amount of ancient scholarship on it.

But also a lot of later,

Imperial era Athenian drama was set during the events of the epic cycle in the Trojan War,

so big ups to Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides for that.

If it wasn't for their plays we'd be in the dark about a lot of these stories,

so never let anyone tell you not to study the humanities,

you never know when you might be doing history a major solid.

But as I was saying, the Iliad is just one part of this big huge epic cycle.

So maybe we can see why it doesn't include the sack of Troy.

But still that leaves us with a lot of questions and problems.

We know we can't call the Iliad the story of the Trojan War, but then again...

What is it the story of?

We can't even really say that it's the story of Achilles because he dies one entire poem later.

And his dead body and gear is still relevant for another poem and a half after that,

so we're still a little lost here.

But I'll be honest,

I wouldn't take all the time to lead you into a confusing literary dilemma if I didn't have a ready answer for you,

so I will argue that there is a clear reason for why the Iliad begins and ends precisely where it does,

and it's because the Iliad isn't a story of Achilles.

It's the story of his rage.

See book one of the Iliad starts when Agamemnon steals Achilles war bride Perseus and tells him to screw off.

Whereupon Achilles promptly does exactly that for the next dozen chapters.

From their half of the poem is Achilles just curled up in his blanket burrito of pure rage.

Then after Patroclus dies Achilles carves of bloody murder Canyon of revenge through the Trojans on his way to Hector,

and then after that Achilles Tries to drag Hector's body around through the dirt on the back of his chariot.

But he gets really angry because his body stays cleanly in one piece through some divine intervention.

From front to back, Achilles is nothing but mad before during and after his revenge quest is over.

But then, in book 24, the very last chapter

King Priam of Troy, goes down to the beachfront camp to ask Achilles to return Hector's body to Troy.

Now this is a gamble because Achilles is one angry boyo.

But still...

Priam goes down to the Greek camp and asks the Greek King for his dead son back.

It's a tense conversation.

And Achilles almost sends him away empty-handed,

and also almost kills him.

But Priam makes a point to compare himself

to Achilles own father Peleus.

And basically says:

if things were the other way around,

your dad would really like to have your body.

He also wouldn't want you being this angry about everything, so please.

Golden Rule, man.

Eventually, they chill out and tell each other stories and even share a meal together.

In the end, Achilles agrees to return Hector's body to Priam

and even Institute's a 12 day truce so that they can complete their funeral arrangements.

Then Priam goes on his way, the Trojans hold Hector's funeral, and that's it.

That's the Iliad.

This scene, sedate as it may seem when compared with the rest of the murder and the shouting and the war goings-on

is really the climax of the story.

Achilles learns to forgive his enemies, and for the first time ever,

lets go of his famous rage.

That's why the Iliad stops here,

it's the clear end of Achilles seemingly unceasing wrath.

His earlier decision to commit revenge against Hector and his later death in the next epic is just going through the motions,

and fulfilling the prophecy of his faded doom.

But his big moment of character growth is right in the conclusion of the Iliad:

where he ultimately refuses the rage that initially set him on his course of action way back in book 1.

The Iliad isn't about the Trojan War,

and it's not even about war.

It's about rage.

And that's the very first word of the poem in the original Greek:

μήνιν (menin)

In Greek the first line of the poem is

μήνιν άειδε θεά Πηληϊάδεω Άχιλήις (menin aeide Thea Peliadeo Achieis)

Sing Muse of the Rage of Peleus' son Achilles

Homer really couldn't have been more clear than that.

Now as a final point,

I think we can all agree that the movie Troy is a pile of hot garbage.

That was steamrolled insta film,

spooled onto a tape,

and shifts to movie theaters all around the world for our collective suffering.

Among many other annoying things, they kill off Menelaus and Ajax during the story.

They changed Patroclus into Achilles cousin

and they make this whole hoopla about the sword of Troy,

but...

But of all the things that this movie gets very wrong.

Painfully so,

the one thing that they get right.

For reasons that are far beyond me

is this very scene between Achilles and Priam.

The rest of the movie is pretty much trash...

But this one scene

is so spot-on for the character of Achilles and its significance to the poem at large.

Just take a look.

So, that's the weirdness of the Iliad story.

The companion tales of the epic cycle.

The importance of rage to the narrative of the Iliad.

And the one thing that Troy did right.