Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.07
ALSO SEEN: Michael Silk, Homer. The Iliad. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 103. ISBN 0-521-53996-X. $15.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Michael Broyles, Macomb College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Silk's Student guide to Homer's Iliad first appeared in 1987, as an installment in Cambridge's Landmarks of World Literature series. To those already familiar with the first edition of this volume, the author plainly states in the introduction to the second edition that there have been no significant changes in the text (Preface, vii). The book itself is divided into three sections: Homer's World and the making of the Iliad, The Poem, and The Iliad and world literature. As in the first edition, the book introduces the poem to the non-Greek reader, attempts to establish the historical context for the poem, and points out major interpretive issues for the novice. Throughout the book Silk is very thorough in his coverage of the context of the poem, the construction of the poem itself, and the place of the poem in the history of literature. However, Silk's essays are composed in the traditions of literary criticism and the resulting book can be convoluted and difficult to follow in sections, especially for the intended audience of college students. Here is an example:
In modern discussions of Homer, such contrastive similes are sometimes trivialised (sic) as moments of "relief" or "variety" from the endless fighting. Rather, the endlessness of the fighting and the contrastive evocations of the similes are equal and necessary truths, mutually explicating each other; and within this relationship the similes work on a vastly deeper level than "relief" or "variety" suggests. (p. 67)
"Homer's World and the making of the Iliad" (pp. 1-27) examines in some detail the origins of the Iliad. One of the salient features of this introduction is an in-depth examination of the nature of oral poetry and oral composition in particular. Considerable time is spent on Homer's Formulaic system, including examples of formulaic phrases such as "As he spoke, death's end came over him. His spirit slipped from his limbs and was gone to Hades, bemoaning its lot, leaving manhood and youth." The deaths of both Patroclus and Hector are described with these same three verses. It was in this chapter that the one questionable statement in the book was put forth. Silk states unequivocally that "The Iliad is to be dated to c. 730" (3). Silk goes on to state that Homer wrote the Iliad about two generations prior to the writings of Hesiod. While the belief that Homer wrote before Hesiod is conventional wisdom, the author's dating scheme challenges the dates usually attributed to Hesiod, placing Homer's classic in the same time frame as Hesiod's writings.1 "The Poem"(pp. 28-92) is the longest chapter and the central point of the book. Having introduced Homer's formulaic style of writing, Silk now examines Homer's content. The chapter starts with a brief overview of all the books of the Iliad and then proceeds to analyze the main points of the work. Throughout this chapter, the focus is on three topics that are the very core of Homer: Heroism, War, and the Heroic Ideal. In discussing Heroism and the Heroic Ideal, Silk brings forth the classic discussion of Achilles as the pinnacle of Greek Heroes. While Achilles is, of course, the main character studied in the discussions of Heroism and the Heroic Ideal, the emphasis shifts subtly in the discussion of War to Hector. In all three sections, the emphasis on character demonstrates what the Greeks wished, and sought for in themselves.
"The Iliad and world literature" (pp. 93-98) is a very brief look at the connection between the Iliad and three other classics of literature: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Of these, the comparisons to the Odyssey and Aeneid are both obvious as they continue the stories of characters introduced in the Iliad. In the Case of Paradise Lost, Silk focuses on phrases and the use of terms as symptomatic of Homer's influence on Milton's classic. By way of an example, Silk states:
Milton's opening phrases succeed in bringing Iliad and Aeneid into simultaneous presence: "Of Man's first disobedience ... Sing heavenly muse ..." "Man" offers the sense of Virgil's virum, but the sound of Homer's mênin: the sense of mênin is implicit rather in the "disobedience".
In conclusion, this guide could be of considerable value to advanced students looking for a more in depth treatment of the oldest classic. It could also prove useful to instructors looking for new ways to incorporate the Iliad into the classroom. However, this book is probably too advanced for an uninitiated reader, which is its intended audience.
1. See, e.g., M.L. West (trans.), Hesiod. Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford 1999), vii.