I’m closer to 40 than I am 30, and I’ve never read The Iliad. I did, however, read The Odyssey in middle school, and quite liked it – though poetry has never been my thing, and the archaic formatting of the translation I read bothered me. Still. It was a good story, and I was in the florescence of my love for heroic fantasy, so The Odyssey kind of felt like the genesis for the types of stories I was reading at the time. So it’s a little surprising, all these years later, that I never picked up The Iliad.
But it’s a story that’s so embedded in our culture that I know what happened. The Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen from Sparta, which initiated a call-to-arms of all the Greek heroes, who then sailed to Troy and fought a decade long war to get her back. Achilles was the greatest of the Greeks, and Hector was the greatest of the Trojans. They fought, and Achilles won, but he was ultimately slain by an arrow to the ankle. Odysseus ultimately devised a plan to build a giant wooden horse that would house a small army. It would be given tot he Trojans as a false gift, and when taken into the walls of the city would be divested of its soldiers. They could then take the gates, let in the rest of the Greek army, and the city would fall. The journey home would be detailed in the story’s follow-up, The Odyssey.
The historicity of the story is fascinating, as well. A few years ago, I read a marvelous book about this era of history that kind of kick-started a re-invigoration of my interest in the late Bronze Age. I watched the underwhelming missed opportunity that was the 2004 movie Troy, and immediately remembered how little I enjoyed it the first time. Wolfgang Peterson wanted to tell the story of The Iliad without all the fictionalized, mythological aspects. What we ended up with was a stale, limp retelling with some prominent actors of the day. And it all begs the question of how can you adapt a story to be historically accurate when it is, to some (probably significant) degree, fiction? It’s like a reverse Braveheart (which took history and turned it into fiction).
What we know from historical and archaeological studies is that the city of Troy did exist, and was called, by the Hittites, Wilusa. It was occupied fairly continuously between 3000 BCE and 500 CE by various societies. The historical Troy (known from the archaeological record as Troy VIIa) may have been destroyed by war sometime around 1184 BCE (there were human remains in the streets and near the walls, bronze arrowheads, and evidence of fire), and was characterized by a heavily fortified citadel and strong outer wall (with 30′ towers). The city was about fifty acres, and housed roughly 10,000 inhabitants, which would’ve made it an important city of the time. After the destruction in 1184, the city continued to be occupied, but there is an increased sign of Greek influence. There is some evidence from Hittite sources that indicate Wilusa belonged to a late Bronze Age confederacy of states called Assuwa.
Coincidentally, the dating of Wilusa (Troy VIIa) matches quite nicely with old attempts to date the history of the world by Saint Jerome, he had the fall of Troy at . So maybe the world really is only 5,000 years old.
Madeline Miller has done something remarkable: she’s retold a story we all know, and one that has been around for literally thousands of years, and made it both compelling and heartfelt, and accurate to the source material. She didn’t re-invent the wheel. Unlike Wolfgang Peterson, she wasn’t trying to tell an historically authentic version of The Iliad. This is the mythological story of Achilles and Patroclus, complete with mythological elements. At its heart, it is a love story. Achilles and Patroclus aren’t cousins (as they are in Troy), they are lovers. And their love is far more authentic than the familial ties in the cinematic version.
I really can’t stress how much I loved this book. I think her follow-up, Circe, deals more with the mythology of its characters (because, you know, gods), and that doesn’t really appeal to me. But I’ll probably still give it a try this year. If you haven’t read this book, however, I highly recommend it.