Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.23

Maureen Alden, Homer Beside Himself. Para-Narratives in the Iliad.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 0-19-815285-X.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Oivind Andersen, University of Oslo (

From the very first sentence of the Preface, Alden (A.) is very clear about the purpose of her book: "This book attempts to explain the relationship between the main narrative of the Iliad and its secondary narratives and episodes in a minor key." The book's thesis is "that the preoccupations of the primary narrative are explored and interpreted in the other narratives of the poem: none of the narratives of the Iliad is there by accident, and none is merely ornamental; the elements of each are related to some aspect of the main story". A.'s "secondary narratives" include both stories related by the poet's characters (e.g. paradigms, genealogies) and interludes related in the voice of the poet himself (e.g. the Shield of Achilles, the athletic events of the funeral games for Patroclus). For such secondary narratives, whose hallmark is that they "do not advance the progress of the main narrative" (1), A. establishes the term "para-narrative". A.'s stress is on the function of para-narratives as "a subtle guide" to the interpretation of the main plot (1) and on the poet's skilful manipulation of material "to shape and influence responses to his main narrative" (10). A. speaks of para-narratives as "a coded reference" (13), offering an "interval of reflection" (18).

In the "Introduction" (1-12), A. establishes her case. On the one hand, she points to Homer's by now well-known reshaping of mythological material into relevant paradigms. On the other, she illustrates how para-narratives work from a few examples in the Odyssey, some (the love-affair of Ares and Aphrodite, the Oresteia story) more convincing and accepted, others perhaps less so (the Cyclops story).

Chapter 2, "Para-Narratives" (13-47), after some introductory statements, goes on to discuss "signposts to the audience" -- except that I cannot see that A. comes up with clear criteria for when an episode or a digression or a subsidiary narrative is a "para-narrative" in her sense. It is fair to say that A.'s method is cumulative: Some similarities clearly are interesting and relevant to (the interpretation of) the main narrative, and if you start to look at it that way... A. makes many interesting observations, e.g. on the funeral games, especially on the quarrel between Antilochus and Menelaus, which in A.'s view rehearses the elements of the more important central quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The last part of the chapter is a discussion of various aspects of paradigms with some pertinent remarks on homeric αἶνος.

Chapter 3 (48-73) is dedicated to "The Shield of Achilles", which, according to A. allows us to see particularly clearly how para-narratives function as a commentary on the events of the main plot of the Iliad. Criticizising, confirming and extending the web of correspondences which other scholars have worked out, A. makes e.g. the images of the two cities on the shield "decipherable as paradigmatic allusions to the events of the main narrative" (72). In this chapter, A. makes instructive use of ancient theories of ekphrasis.

Nestor is an important para-narrator in the Iliad. In Ch. 4, "Nestor: Paradigms from Personal Experience", many of his interventions are subjected to A.'s approach. Nestor's anecdote of the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (Il. 1. 259-73), in addition to boosting Nestor's authority, "is significant at two deeper levels" (80) -- on the assumption, that is, that the audience and we associate the battle with the wedding feast of Peirithous and Hippodameia (which admittedly goes unmentioned), for the battle is then fought to prevent bride-stealing. Thus, at a deeper level, Lapiths correspond to Greeks, and Centaurs to Trojans; and at the deepest level Nestor "implicitly" and "in veiled terms" (81) rebukes Agamemnon for taking Briseis away from Achilles. Some may also want to go along with A.s opinion (88) that Nestor's image of Ereuthalion and his distinguished armour (cf. Il. 7.136ff) "echoes the emphasis in Hector's challenge on the prospect of stripping armour from a vanquished enemy" (88). Areïthous stretched out ὕπτιος in Il. 7.145 "will be echoed" in the ὕπτιος Hector in Il. 7.271 (ibid.). But the ὕπτιος warrior is not such a rare entity in Homer that it is easy to accept a connection here.

In Chapter 5 ("Diomede: Debate in Para-Narrative", 112-52), A. makes some good comments on the debate on divine patronage and the fate of the θεομάχος, which is conducted by means of para-narratives clustered around Diomedes, while the brief chapter which follows (153-78) discusses "Genealogy as Paradigm", including Diomedes' genealogy as a claim to status (cf. Il. 14.115-133) and the genealogies of Glaucus (Il. 6.154-206) and Aeneas (cf. Il. 20.213-41). The two genealogical passages have as a common theme the divine favour bestowed on an ancestor, and together they form part of "the raft of correspondences between the career of Diomedes in the first half of the poem, and the career of Achilles in the final books" (169f.) which has been observed by other scholars as well, but which A. extends and refines in subtle ways. A. takes the connection between their extended genealogies to be established by verbal repetition in the introduction to, and conclusion of, their genealogies; the element "obviously common" to both the Glaucus/Diomedes encounter and the Aeneas/Achilles encounter is in fact the extended genealogy, which "draws attention to" other correspondences between the two encounters (172). Readers may be more or less convinced by the shared pattern and the specific anticipations postulated by A. (e.g. 1d, "Abortive conclusion" in the encounter of Glaucus and Diomedes: they do not fight; in the confrontation between Achilles and Aeneas: Poseidon rescues Aeneas (174). A.s presentation in table form (174f.) of the many correspondences that she has found, is anyway instructive.

Chapter 7 (179-290) is a very full treatment of "The Paradigm of Meleager: Application and Implication". The chapter stands out not only as a contribution to the interpretation of the paradigm in book 9 of the Iliad, but of central issues of the poem as a whole, including the role of ἄτη or delusion. The chapter includes sections on the nature of λιταί (prayers) and the concept of ἱκετεία (supplication) including a table showing all instances of supplication in the Iliad (187-9) and a summary analysis in tabular form of the fifty uses of λίσσομαι, λιταί and λιτάνευω in the poem (193-6). A.'s inquiry furthers the discussion initiated by John Gould's important 1973 article (now reprinted in his Myth, Ritual, Memory, and Exchange [2001]). A. rightly takes full account of the "autobiography" of Phoenix, seeing it as an invitation to Achilles "to identify with him as one who avoided parricide only out of concern for public opinion", thereby almost asking for an adverse reaction (222). A.'s main focus, however, is on the so-called "ascending scale of affection", which A. applies not only to Meleager and Achilles, but to Hector as well. A. accords utmost significance to the father-son relationship, which is "the relationship in terms of affection and obligation" (288), and the relationship most highly esteemed by Homer's audience. By now we are not surprised to hear that "the approaches to Meleager correspond closely to the approaches made in books 9 and 16 to Achilles"; in fact "the correspondences are far closer than either Kakridis or even Lohmann suspected" (244). A main source of inspiration for A., both for the paradigm of Meleager and more generally, is Joh. Th. Kakridis, especially his Homeric Researches (1949). A. confesses in a note (6, n. 16) apropos Meleager that Kakridis once told her: "I am glad you went further than I did." Even those who find that A. sometimes goes too far in postulating correspondences, anticipations, paradigmatic allusions, and implicit commentary in Homer's text will be richly rewarded by studying A.s many detailed analyses. Many will be impressed by the (cumulative) argument of her book as a whole.

In spite of A.s initial claim that her book explores "a new and very simple approach to Homeric narratives", the value of the book, as I see it, lies less in its originality or in striking new insights, than in its sustained and exhaustive treatment of an aspect of Homeric composition. A. is right that "[n]o one has ever discussed the body of para-narratives contained in the Iliad in this way" (11). A. has made the most of it, she offers a kind of maximum option. Your reviewer is personally in sympathy with A.s approach and finds much to agree with in her book. But many issues need further discussion. I note here briefly the following: What counts as "similarity", "parallel", "repetition", "echo" etc.? When does something "correspond" to or "represent" something else? The word "correspondence" and its cognates and eqvivalents figure prominently in the book. Must we not be more careful in distinguishing between what is intended and significant, and what is incidental, given the conventions and constraints of epic composition? We also may need to distinguish more sharply between what characters say, and the poet's voice. The character concerned is differently involved in the statement "Tlepolemus is made to establish a precedent" (160), and in "Sarpedon is made to convey, inadvertently, not that the present generation of Trojans [...]". Sometimes A. seems to work on the principle that the poet suppresses whatever suits him; but then "the audience may still be aware of the reverberations of material omitted" (139). A.'s very concept of "para-narrative" may be too wide and inclusive, and her claims for the interpetive relevance of all (kinds of) secondary narratives too strong. A. thus may achieve less than she wishes for her para-narratives because she wants to prove too much. On the other hand her book in many places, and especially the chapter on Meleager, offers more than what is in its title.

A.'s presentation does not suffer from terseness and thrift. There is a certain amount of repetition and re-telling, e.g. 256f. on Patroclus. To me it seems unnecessary in a scholarly book like this to have big chunks of the Iliad quoted both in the original and in translation. Annotation is copious throughout; A. is both conscientious and generous in her critical and constructive dialogue with earlier scholars, a feature which enhances the value of the book.

There are five appendices of varying weight and relevance: A, on approaches to Homer's narratives; B, on the nature of Homer's text; C, on the meaning of the exchange of armour (between Glaucus and Diomedes); D, on the hero's death by destruction of a life-token; and E, on the motivation ascribed to wives entreating husbands. There is a full bibliography, an index of passages cited, and a detailed general index.

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