Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
The majestic king of Troy slipped past the rest
and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam's many sons in battle.
- Book 24: Achilles and Priam
ll. 559-562, p. 604
Warning: Large amounts of spoilers below. If you know nothing about Greek history, Western history, Greek mythology or the events of the Trojan War, you will be spoiled. If you know a bit about the above but have never read The Iliad, you will be spoiled. If you don't want to be spoiled, go read The Iliad and learn about classical Western history because it's really interesting, like all things where history records are obscure.
The Iliad is about the Trojan War between the Greeks (then called Achaeans) and the Trojans after Paris, a Trojan prince, takes Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. The poem begins when Achilles decides he will no longer fight with the Achaeans until Agamemnon, king of Argos, returns his captive Briseis. Agamemnon says no, so Achilles and his Myrmidons do not participate in the battles until she is returned to Achilles. The poem ends with Priam, king of Troy, taking Hector's corpse back to Troy to be buried. The time span of the poem is roughly a few weeks out of the war and the events are supposed to occur during the last year of the war, with it having gone on for ten years previously.
Make no mistake: this is a poem about war, so that means we are getting a lot of battles. There is at least a battle every book (the "chapters" of the poem are separated into 24 books) for the most part and they are consistently bloody. People are being disemboweled, having spears run through their necks, being decapitated or having their heads bashed in. It's pretty gruesome, and yet the language that Homer, and through translation Fagles, uses is poetic in its elegance; the injuries and deaths described don't come across as disgusting, but have the effect of making everyone seem courageous and strong.
Achilles as a character is probably one of the most popular Greek heroes today. People name their dogs after him, Brad Pitt famously played him in that terrible but still enjoyable movie Troy, and the majority of people in the West know who and what Achilles is famous for. People think he's the shit, and technically in the scope of The Iliad he is. He's unmatched in fighting prowess, his armour is the best and he's a great leader. He also has an unmatchable temper -- not even Agamemnon could match it, and they're both petty as hell. Most of The Iliad has no Achilles fighting, until probably four books from the end, because his temper is so intense that he was angry that entire time. Multiple chill pills needed to be taken.
Another thing that will surprise people who haven't read the text and have only encountered the story through our culture will be the complete lack of honour these guys show to the other side. When Hector is killed, the rest of the Achaeans go up and stab his corpse and then taunt it. I'm not kidding. They all go up and say, "Ha, not such a bigshot now, are you?" (or something to that effect) as they each stab him with their spears. Achilles then spends a week or so dragging his corpse around from his chariot. Patroclus kind of gets the same treatment earlier in the poem. His body is stripped of Achilles' armour and the Achaeans and the Trojans kind of do a little tug-of-war with his corpse. Like, what?! That is just not a nice thing to do to a dead person.
Probably the last really surprising thing is the appearances of the Greek pantheon. They are literally everywhere, fucking up shit. A large part of The Iliad is that Hera and Zeus are having another marital spat and so support opposite sides of the war; Hera wants the Achaeans to win, Zeus wants the Trojans to win. Both get other gods and goddesses to help their sides and fight each other. Athena completely dominates Ares and then essentially rapid-fire punches Aphrodite in the tit. It's amazing. The gods and goddesses also help out the men by redirecting arrows and spears, physically manifesting to literally give them a hand, and by manipulating nature so that there's a heavy mist or stopping the flow of the river, etc. They kind of steal the show.
Unsurprisingly, the women get the least amount of screen time (metaphorically). This is a war and I think it's pretty valid to say that women in Western canon at this point in history were not participants but spoils of war. The famous Helen gets a fair amount of time for a female character, but it's more like, "This guy looks like he can deffo beat someone up. So does this guy. I think Troy's got this." Andromache probably has the most appearances in the text, but solely as a reaction to Hector's death and subsequent funeral parade. There's a lot of "Woe is me! I can't believe Hector would die and leave me and my baby to those nasty Achaeans!" Hector's mother also gets some time to mourn and speak a bit. Briseis actually has a couple things to say, but like Andromache they only happen in response to Patroclus' death. In fact, I don't think Briseis actually says anything to Achilles.
(I want to take this moment for all of us to appreciate that Briseis is a gorgeous name, both aesthetically when you look at the spelling and the original and bastardized pronunciations. Also, in the text, she may have been a captive but she and Achilles were going to wed once the war was over, but then again Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Briseis is actually an interesting character. I would love to see a telling of these events from her point of view à la Wide Sargasso Sea. I also want to point out that Andromache is a badass name.)
The most notable thing about The Iliad is that you can tell it was an oral story before Homer wrote it down. There are a lot of repetitions, especially when mentioning characters' names, and sometimes seems redundant. There is one scene where Zeus tells Iris to tell Priam "x" and Iris tells Priam "x" word-for-word what we just read. I actually don't find those bits annoying like I'm sure other readers might, because it just makes my linguistics-senses tingle. It impresses me more than anything. I can't personally imagine remembering a poem that is thousands of lines long and tells such an important historical event, despite the Trojan War's historicity being widely debated. There's also some great foreshadowing used in regards to Achilles' impending death.
Great, interesting poem that is never dull. Sadly, there is no Trojan horse, but we can't have everything.