Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.29

Irene J. F. de Jong, Homer: Iliad. Book XXII. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 210.  ISBN 9780521709774.  $36.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edith Foster, Ashland University (


With this slender volume I.J.F. de Jong offers a commentary that is deeply thoughtful and scholarly, but also accessible and economical in its format. It offers a teaching tool useful at the undergraduate and early graduate levels of study, since it provides not only detailed guidance for reading book 22, but also an introduction to the Iliadas a whole. Moreover, the interpretive insights offered throughout the volume will be useful to readers and scholars at any level.

The introduction of this volume first reviews basic information on Homer and then provides an account of modern Homeric scholarship, setting the genesis of the oral-formulaic theory of epic composition against the background of earlier debates between analysts and unitarians (1-4). Once de Jong has explained the importance of oral-formulaic theory, she documents its resistance to the interpretative techniques central to her own commentary. Strict oral- formulaic study of Homer discouraged literary interpretation, she observes: “there was a ban not only on contextually significant epithets but also on long-range cross-references, intentional repetition of lines and scenes, and on the concept of an overarching structure” (5). Literary analysis of the Iliad, building on the bases established by the scholars of oral composition, and originating from a variety of perspectives, only gradually regained validity and importance in the 1970s and beyond (5-6).

This development constitutes another huge step forward, and the next sections of the introduction (pages 6-18) make straight for interpretive gold, describing the structure of the entire Iliad, the parallels between books 6, 22, and 24, and the interrelations between the figures of Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles. As de Jong shows, the Iliad’s four days of battle offer an overarching temporal structure for a tightly connected story susceptible to detailed narrative analysis. Her short, usefully suggestive description of this lengthy poem and its main themes and characters is a model of careful selection, and forms a fruitful introduction to the Iliad as a whole. Further arguments (18-28) demonstrate the usefulness of close analysis by focusing on chosen aspects of Homer’s narrative art. For example, de Jong describes the character of the narrator and his relation to the narratees, and demonstrates the gain in understanding won from close interpretation of similes and epithets.

The final sections of the introduction directly address the student who will begin reading the Iliadin Greek. Homeric language is clearly and comprehensively introduced in well-organized and numbered sections that are easy to reference while using the text (29-33). Paradigms are provided for frequently recurring, but initially challenging, forms such as the possessive and personal pronouns. Explanations of prosody (33-38) are clear, and furnished with examples. The introduction concludes (38-40) with a brief history of the text of the Iliad.

The initial sections of the commentary therefore introduce the Iliad, literary interpretation of the poem, and the knowledge necessary for learning to read it in Greek. The Greek text that follows offers an apparatus in English and Greek, rather than Latin and Greek. After the commentary, the whole volume is capped with a generous bibliography, a subject index, and an index of important Greek words. Much has been done, in other words, to make this volume as useful and as accessible as possible to students whose first language is English, and Greekless students can also profit from the introduction’s initial essays.

It remains only to praise the character of the commentary itself. The proof of de Jong’s contention that narrative analysis “opens the way to a full appreciation of Homer’s artistry” (5) is in the pudding: the commentary offers to students and professionals alike a baptism in literary interpretation of the Iliad. One should immediately confirm that accessibility is never sacrificed to this aim, just as the requisite morphological and grammatical explanations remain central. Passages are frequently introduced with didactic translations. Explications of the meaning of particular words, as far as we can know them, are frequent and extremely interesting, allowing for a more nuanced translation of passages where one might have become accustomed to allowing a more approximate gloss. Particularly helpful is de Jong’s consistent attention to particles, pronouns, and articles, and her careful deciphering of the particular character or relevance of epithets.

Generous grammatical, syntactical, and morphological explanations, with copious contextualizing cross-references, therefore found a collection of very many apt and helpful literary interpretations that are born of a deep familiarity with the text and its language. These interpretations themselves are enlarged by frequent references to relevant further literature, and frequent quotations from other scholars’ effective or vivid readings. Her explanation of the word τέθναθι, uttered by the victorious Achilles at line 365, offers a brief example. “τέθναθι ‘be dead’. The imperative standing alone is abrupt and dismissive. In this context, we find an aorist (21.106: θάνε) or, more often, a perfect, cf. e.g. τεθνάτω (15.496) and τεθναίης (5.164). The perfect here expresses ‘the satisfaction that the fate of his great enemy has been finally and fully fulfilled’(Ameis-Hentze, my translation).”

Overall, the commentary focuses on meaning. Literary analysis never dominates this focus, and the language of literary analysis, which is used sparingly, is made to serve the ends of understanding. In general, de Jong uses familiar, rather than technical, words to explain the structure of the narrative. An example ad loc. 165-166 (Achilles and Hector are circling the walls of Troy three times): “A split variant of the ‘three times X, three times Y, but the fourth time Z’ motif: here we find the ‘three times X’ part, while only at 208-9 do we find the ‘but the fourth time Z’ part. This motif, which occurs eight times in the Iliad and Odyssey, usually marks a turning point in the story…” Cf. terms such as “technique of gradual revelation” (concerning the accumulating announcements of Achilles’ death; ad loc. 358-60), “misdirection of plot” (ad loc. 378-84, where the narrator is suggesting that Achilles might conquer Troy), or the “over-arching” technique (ad loc. 331-336, concerning speeches that respond to each other over a great distance in the narrative; note the reference to Thucydides). Shorter or more local structures are given equally accessible descriptions: the “(not) even + hyperbole motif” (ad loc. 220-21 or 349-54); “the combination of impossible wish and certain event” (ad loc. 346-348), “polar expression” (ad loc. 304-305, 371), “interruption formula” (ad loc. 385), “doublings” (ad loc. 436). General rules are succinctly described, e.g. “the thoughts ascribed [to the dead by victors vaunting over their bodies] …are hyperbolic” (ad loc. 331-33).

No one should assume that the thought is simple because the words are well known. On the contrary, the dense weave of Homeric artistic decisions with the moral, philosophical, and scientific issues that underlie the poem is given as much attention as possible. For some examples, readers may refer to de Jong’s short essays on kudos (ad loc. 205), thumos and psuche (ad loc. 362-3), or on the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus (ad loc. 387-390). To the extent possible, the poem’s conceptual Nachleben is included in these reflections, cf. e.g. remarks on insight, shame, guilt, Herodotus, Euripides, and E. R. Dodds ad loc. 99-100.

De Jong’s emphases are outlined in the preface. She says that she will focus on “Homer’s language (especially his oral syntax, the meaning of words, and the function of particles) and his narrative style (for instance the structure of scenes, the relationship of the narrator and characters, and the directing of the narratees’ emotional response). (vii) In my own experience, she accomplishes a great deal more, bringing out meanings and connections that cast book 22 in an entirely fresh light and reveal this book’s close connections to the Iliad as a whole. After reading this commentary, I felt I had experienced a thorough review and renewal of my Iliadic self.

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