Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.56

Leon Golden, Understanding the Iliad.   Bloomington, IN:  Authorhouse, 2006.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 1-4208-1351-X.  $11.50.  

Reviewed by Brett Robbins, San Diego State University (
Word count: 1733 words

Understanding the Iliad offers an interpretation of the Iliad as a work of what today would be called "self-help" or "self improvement," (although Golden [G.] himself does not use these terms to describe it), dealing with "issues that are immediately relevant to ourselves," and aimed at achieving positive psychological and spiritual benefits for its readers. According to G.'s thesis, "which may not be in agreement with orthodox criticism of the poem," the Iliad should be read as a "contemporary document" (vii) and constitutes an example of the Bildungsroman, "a drama of inner turmoil, struggle, and psychological and emotional evolution" (102). G. emphasizes the common view that the Iliad, while ostensibly a poem of war, is more essentially a poem about Achilles and his battle with himself, insisting that "Achilles's most important victory is not won by massacres on the plains of Troy but by his triumph over himself, over the controlling force of narcissistic rage and over his bondage to the lex talionis" (102). After a brief overview of the contents of the book in his Introduction, G. defends his thesis in three chapters: 1) "The Gods, War, and the Human Condition," 2) "Achilles," and 3) "The Relationship of the Iliad to Greek Tragic Theory and Practice."

In Chapter 1, "The Gods, War, and the Human Condition," G. argues that "Homer uses the divine framework of [the Iliad] to describe ... the nature and boundaries of mortal existence" (1), adding a third function of the divine element of the epic to the two already posited by Willcock (allegorical and anthropomorphic [x]): the "theological" (10). G. corroborates the view (held by Edwards and Kirk among others) that the Olympian gods tend to be indifferent, and at times hostile, to the heroes of the Iliad, but urges us not to interpret this fact in an exclusively negative light. Rather, he insists that Homer characterizes the gods in this manner to emphasize (1) the fact that "humanity is on its own, fragile, vulnerable, and dependent only on itself for the possibility of surviving and prospering in the world it inhabits," (10) and (2) the formidable effort required for mortals to behave heroically within such an adverse cosmic context (13). As such, the gods exist in the poem primarily as a potential obstacle to human progress that can only be counteracted through a more or less consistent adherence to the "orthodox heroic code" (which G. distinguishes, most fully in Chapter 2, from the more "complex" conduct of Achilles). While G. acknowledges, however, that Homeric heroes are often concerned with seeking kleos, he rejects the romanticized "beautiful death" theory of Vernant (16), countering it with examples of Homeric heroes making ad hoc use of the heroic code and occasionally shunning it to avoid certain death, and a testimonial by Bernard Knox, who, as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, speaks of the solace he took in the realistic appraisal of the brutality and suffering of war offered by Homer's heroes.1 G.'s primary purpose for advocating a realistic rather than romantic interpretation of military bloodshed in the Iliad is to establish the "life-affirming and life-preserving ethic [that] overcomes the 'kill or be killed' dictates of the orthodox heroic code ... " While the portion of Chapter 1 devoted to demonstrating this notion (more than half) may be disproportionately large, nevertheless it "foreshadows the climactic victory of humane values that will take place in the encounter between Achilles and Priam in Book 24," which constitutes the primary thesis of the book and is developed at length in the next chapter.

In Chapter 2, "Achilles," which is the theoretical and critical centerpiece of the book, comprising twenty pages more than both chapters 1 and 3 combined, G. focuses primarily upon Achilles and argues that the structure of the Iliad itself justifies this emphasis, consistent with G's fundamental conviction that whatever we encounter in the Iliad must be considered in the light of how it bears upon this greatest of warriors (39). G. cites Latacz as a representative of the widely-held view that "The Iliad exhibits a thoroughly premeditated unity from first to last ... " and then asks "what it is that does create unity of action." Rather than draw upon the work of previous scholars who have grappled with this question, however,2 G. starts from scratch, indicating that the events of Books 1 and 24 "represent the first stage and the last stage of the construction of Achilles's character in the poem." He insists that to read the Iliad as the Bildungsroman it is "means tracing the unfolding of [Achilles'] emotional and psychological anguish until epiphany leads to transformation" (49). To this end, G. compares Achilles' sadness and loneliness in books 1-22 with the frolicsome nature of Paris and Hector's loving relationship with Andromache (55). G. elicits psychoanalytic theory to describe the conditions of "narcissistic rage" (72), "grandiosity" (78), and submission to the "talionic impulse" (85) in contemporary terms, in each case providing examples to support his contention that Achilles' behavior before Book 23 is consistent with each of these conditions. As an effective segue to the central function that he attributes to books 23 and 24, G. addresses Monro's opinion that they are spurious and unnecessary to the structure of the epic (101). He points out that this notion reflects a conception of the Iliad as a war poem rather than as an Achilles poem, which depends upon these books for its psychological payoff (84-5). G. then analyzes Books 23 and 24 from the standpoint of the evolution of Achilles and his transcending of the destructive tendencies he exhibited earlier in the epic. Yet G. points out that Achilles' psychological and spiritual development is gradual rather than sudden, emphasizing that while he exhibits magnanimity toward Agamemnon during the Funeral Games in Book 23, he nevertheless retains his anger toward Hector at the beginning of Book 24 as he mutilates his corpse, inducing the gods to arrange for the final meeting between him and Priam. It seems, however, that this discrepancy between the supposed rehabilitation of Achilles' soul in Book 23 and the viciousness he exhibits at the beginning of Book 24 are not so easy to reconcile. G. makes an attempt at doing so by mentioning that "Priam's immense suffering has now awakened in Achilles humane pity of a far more profound kind than that he felt for Eumelus' embarrassing failure in the chariot race" (118). It is not Achilles' gracious concession to Eumelus, however, but his gesture of reconciliation to Agamemnon, that constitutes the salient spiritual breakthrough on his part in Book 23. To emphasize Eumelus rather than Agamemnon in this context begs the question of whether Achilles' transcending of anger toward Agamemnon is likewise less significant than that toward Hector in Book 24, a question that G. might have profitably addressed to make his notion of the evolution of Achilles' character from Book 23 to Book 24 as persuasive as that between books 1-22, on the one hand, and books 23 and 24, on the other.

In Chapter 3, "The Relationship of the Iliad to Greek Tragic Theory and Practice," G. begins by reminding us that "while agreeing on Homer's achievement as tragedy's originator and the most influential force behind its evolutionary development, Plato and Aristotle clearly evaluated that status in contradictory ways" (126). In an ingenious effort to reconcile these two tendencies, G. suggests that while Plato's aversion to Euripidean "works of pathos" most likely reflects an emphasis on the first twenty-two books of the Iliad, Aristotle's affection for Sophoclean "tragic heroism" is probably focused more on the character of Achilles in its final two books than on what transpired beforehand (136). In the interest of fitting Plato's and Aristotle's views on tragedy within this scheme, G. explores Aristotle's conception of catharsis in the Poetics and the Politics and concludes that it refers to the "intellectual clarification" that emerges from Oedipus the King rather than the "purgation" of emotions associated with plays like the Bacchae and Medea (145). Considering the numerous examples of violence and catharsis throughout the Iliad, however, it requires a bit of a stretch to assume that the negative and positive appraisal of tragedy by Plato and Aristotle reflects a corresponding emphasis by each on books 1-22 and 23-24, respectively, let alone an outlook on their part consistent with the evolutionary model of Achilles expounded by G. Finally, G. makes it a point to differentiate between Achilles and Oedipus as tragic heroes: while the latter maintains his heroic stature throughout Oedipus the King, the former attains it in the Iliad only after the emotional and spiritual evolution he undergoes after much suffering. G. concludes with a statement that ties together the various strands of his three chapters and reinforces his conception of the Iliad as a contemporary document intended to benefit its readers. Considering that Chapter 3 treats a completely different topic from the first two chapters, a separate Conclusion would have been a welcome addition.

Understanding the Iliad achieves what it sets out to accomplish: to provide an interpretation of the Iliad that emphasizes its didactic aspects, its ability to improve its readers by presenting the spectacle of the evolution of a flawed warrior consumed by destructive anger to a legitimate hero who transcends his narcissism and grandiosity and reaches out to others and by doing so heals his own aching soul in the process. The book induces us reflect upon the character of Achilles and to notice, and allow ourselves to find meaning in, how profoundly he changes over the course of the epic, thereby providing a lesson in our own lives about how we too might improve ourselves. Finally, while the value of G.'s book resides primarily in pointing out the legitimacy of reading the Iliad as a work of "self-help," I reemphasize the fact that G. does not himself use the term per se, although there would be no shame in doing so, for his concern with the contemporary relevance of the Iliad and its power to benefit its readers recalls the late, great UCSB English professor Frank McConnell's words to this effect: " ... stories matter, and matter deeply, because they are the best way to save our lives....After more than a century of handbooks on the subject, [stories are] still the best version of 'self-help' our civilization has invented" (Storytelling & Mythmaking, 1979:4).


1.  This quote by Knox is especially relevant to G.'s book, as it further legitimates the self-help function of the Iliad that G. attributes to it (although in this connection G. might have also mentioned Jonathan Shay's book, Achilles in Vietnam [1995], a thorough study of modern combat trauma and its ancient counterpart in the Iliad).
2.  Most noteworthy along these lines is Cedric H. Whitman's seminal book, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (1958), in which he compares the elaborate structure of the Iliad -- and especially its "principle of circularity, including concentricity, or framing by balanced similarity and antithesis" (255) -- to that of a contemporary geometric vase. G. does, however, mention -- curiously at the end rather than the beginning of the chapter -- the fact that Graham Zanker acknowledges "the magnanimity that Achilles ultimately achieves in the Iliad as 'unique ... in its centrality in the structure of the poem'" (123).

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