As MrsDarwin mentioned, we've been listening to an audio book of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Iliad while driving in the car lately. By chance we heard one of my favorite sections of the Iliad this weekend, and it struck me especially on this weekend when, in the American civil calendar, we recall those who have served our country and especially those who have died in its service.
One of the things one quickly notices reading acient works is how many of the oldest works that survive, from a range of cultures, focus on war. The Iliad and Odyssey, of course. Gilgamesh and Beowulf both focus on great heroes who struggle to defeat supernatural monsters. The Nibelungenlied centers on an extended feud that becomes a veritable bloodbath. Etc.
Some might observe, somewhat cynically, that this is simply because all of these originate in cultures ruled by warrior elites, and that it was natural for this audience to patronize storytellers to fill their leisure hours and equally natural that their favorite topic should be the exploits of their own kind. This may be true to an extent, but I think there's an explanation rooted much more deeply in human nature than that. So much of our greatest fiction, today as in the ancient world, centers on conflict, violence and death because these things bring the ordinary dramas of human life into much greater urgency and import. A man may go to work every day because he wants to provide for and protect his wife and children, but if the day comes when he's summoned up to risk his life in battle to protect them, the sense in which he is ready to sacrifice himself for them is thrown into sharp relief. Similarly, the terrors of war make all the more precious the blessings of peace. In Homer, this is often expressed through extended references to times of peace, juxtaposed with the incredible violence of bronze age battle. For example:
There the screaming and the shouts of triumph rose up together
of men killing and men killed, and the ground ran blood.
As when rivers in winter spate running down from the mountains
throw together at the meeting of streams the weight of their water
out of the great springs behind in the hollow of the stream-bed,
and far away in the mountains the shepherd hears their thunder;
such, from the coming together of men, was the shock and the shouting.
(Iliad 4: 450-456, Lattimore trans.)
Though overall I didn't love the book, I was struck by a similar example of war's power to make us long for peace in Ian McEwan's Atonement where he has something along the lines of (quoting from several years memory, since I don't have the book at hand): How many thousands of children were conceived in mind on the roads to Dunkirk, as countless men offered God their bargains: "I'll marry her as soon as I get home. And buy a cottage, and take care of her, and stay home at nights, and we'll have three children and take them to church every Sunday, if only you'll let me reach the sea alive."
This section comes from Book 6 of the Iliad, as Hector returns briefly from the field of battle to the city to ask the women of the royal household to offer sacrifices to the gods that the Trojans will be successful in the current battle. Before going out again to fight, he seeks out his wife, who has been watching from the walls.
Keep in mind as you read it, as the Greek audience would also have known ahead of time, that before much longer (though not this day) Hector will indeed be killed in battle, and that when the city is taken his young son will be hurled from the walls of the city to his death, and Andromache made a slave and concubine to the son of Achilles, the man who had killed Hector.
Hector left the house by the same route he’d come,
through the well-built streets, across the mighty city,
and reached the Scaean Gates, beyond which he’d go
out onto the plain. There his wife ran up to meet him,
Andromache, daughter of great-hearted Eëtion,
who’d included a large dowry with her.
Eëtion had lived below forested Mount Placus,
in Thebe, king of the Cilician people. She’d become
married wife to Hector of the shining helmet.
Now she met him there. With her came the nurse,
holding at her breast their happy infant child,
well-loved son of Hector, like a beautiful star.
Hector had named him Scamandrius, but others
called him Astyanax, lord of the city,
because Hector was Troy’s only guardian.
Hector looked at his son in silence, with a smile.
Andromache stood close to him, weeping.
Taking Hector by the hand, she spoke to him.
“My dear husband, your warlike spirit
will be your death. You’ve no compassion
for your infant child, for me, your sad wife,
who before long will be your widow.
For soon the Achaeans will attack you,
all together, and cut you down. As for me,
it would be better, if I’m to lose you,
to be buried in the ground. For then I’ll have
no other comfort, once you meet your death,
except my sorrow. I have no father,
no dear mother. For lord Achilles killed
my father, when he wiped out Thebe,
city with high gates, slaying Eëtion.
But he didn’t strip his corpse—his heart
felt too much shame for that. So he burned him
in his finely decorated armour
and raised a burial mound above the ashes.
Mountain nymphs, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
planted elm trees all around his body.
I had seven brothers in my home.
All went down to Hades in a single day,
for swift-footed lord Achilles killed them all,
while they were guarding their shambling oxen
and their white shining sheep. As for my mother,
who ruled wooded Thebe-under-Placus,
he brought her here with all his other spoils.
Then he released her for a massive ransom.
But archer goddess Artemis then killed her
in her father’s house. So, Hector, you are now
my father, noble mother, brother,
and my protecting husband. So pity me.
Stay here in this tower. Don’t orphan your child
and make me a widow. Place men by the fig tree,
for there the city is most vulnerable,
the wall most easily scaled. Three times
their best men have come there to attack,
led by the two Ajaxes, the sons of Atreus,
famous Idomeneus, and Diomedes,
Tydeus’ courageous son, incited to it
by someone well versed in prophecy
or by their own hearts’ inclination.”
Great Hector of the shining helmet answered her:
all this concerns me, too. But I’d be disgraced,
dreadfully shamed among Trojan men
and Trojan women in their trailing gowns,
if I should, like a coward, slink away from war.
My heart will never prompt me to do that,
for I have learned always to be brave,
to fight alongside Trojans at the front,
striving to win fame for father and myself.
My heart and mind know well the day is coming
when sacred Ilion will be destroyed,
along with Priam of the fine ash spear
and Priam’s people. But what pains me most
about these future sorrows is not so much
the Trojans, Hecuba, or king Priam,
or even my many noble brothers,
who’ll fall down in the dust, slaughtered
by their enemies. My pain focuses on you,
when one of those bronze-clad Achaeans
leads you off in tears, ends your days of freedom.
If then you come to Argos as a slave,
working the loom for some other woman,
fetching water from Hypereia or Messeis,
against your will, forced by powerful Fate,
then someone seeing you as you weep
may well say:
‘That woman is Hector’s wife.
He was the finest warrior in battle
of all horse-taming Trojans in that war
when they fought for Troy.’
Someone will say that,
and it will bring still more grief to you,
to be without a man like that to save you
from days of servitude. May I lie dead,
hidden deep under a burial mound,
before I hear about your screaming,
as you are dragged away.”
With these words,
glorious Hector stretched his hands out for his son.
The boy immediately shrank back against the breast
of the finely girdled nurse, crying out in terror
to see his own dear father, scared at the sight of bronze,
the horse-hair plume nodding fearfully from his helmet top.
The child’s loving father laughed, his noble mother, too.
Glorious Hector pulled the glittering helmet off
and set it on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son
and held him in his arms. He prayed aloud to Zeus
and the rest of the immortals.
“Zeus, all you other gods,
grant that this child, my son, may become,
like me, pre-eminent among the Trojans,
as strong and brave as me. Grant that he may rule
Troy with strength. May people someday say,
as he returns from war, ‘This man is far better
than his father.’ May he carry back
bloody spoils from his slaughtered enemy,
making his mother’s heart rejoice.”
He placed his son in the hands of his dear wife.
She embraced the child on her sweet breast, smiling
through her tears. Observing her, Hector felt compassion.
He took her hand, then spoke to her.
“My dearest wife,
don’t let your heart be sad on my account.
No man will throw me down to Hades
before my destined time. I tell you this—
no one escapes his fate, not the coward,
nor the brave man, from the moment of his birth.
So you should go into the house, keep busy
with your proper work, with your loom and wool,
telling your servants to set about their tasks.
War will be every man’s concern, especially mine,
of all those who live in Troy.”
Having said these words,
glorious Hector took his plumed helmet in his hands.
His beloved wife went home, often looking back,
as she went, crying bitterly. She quickly reached
the spacious home of Hector, killer of men.
Inside she met her many servants and bid them all lament.
So they mourned for Hector in his own house,
though he was still alive—they thought he’d not come back,
he’d not escape the battle fury of Achaean hands.
[Iliad 6:390-502 from Ian Johnston's online translation of the Iliad.]