Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.07

Lynn Kozak, Experiencing Hektor: Character in the Iliad. Bloomsbury Classical Studies Monographs.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 307.  ISBN 9781474245449.  $128.00.  

Reviewed by Evert van Emde Boas, Merton College, Oxford (


[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

It is not unusual to find the language of modern visual media used in Homeric scholarship: narratological studies in particular often deal with ‘shots’, ‘cuts’, ‘the camera’, ‘close-ups’, ‘zooming’, and so forth.1 Kozak’s enjoyable book is different in that its borrowings pertain to structure and time more than to visualization and space, and in that it privileges parallels from television, particularly from serialized television shows, over those from film. Alongside structure, characterization is the book’s main focus – above all, as the title suggests, the characterization of Hector.

Kozak’s brisk introduction lays out the two theoretical models that she works with throughout the book. The first is a model of narrative structure borrowed from television poetics2: Kozak treats the Iliad as made up of ‘beats’, ‘episodes’, and ‘arcs’ (units of progressively greater length). The second is an elegant and up-to-date approach to characterization (again heavily informed by work on television, but also by cognitive approaches to literary characterization more generally) 3: Kozak speaks here in terms of narrative ‘attachment’ and ‘access’ to individual characters, which together can go into audience ‘alignment’ with those characters, and lead eventually to ‘allegiance’. These two models are then applied in a beginning-to-end reading of the Iliad that makes up the bulk of the book. Kozak divides the epic up into three larger movements – ‘Enter Hektor’ (1.1-6.502), ‘Killing Time’ (6.503-15.746), and ‘Ends’ (16.1-24.804), each of which is split up into smaller beats and episodes. A brief conclusion rounds off the book.

The book’s tone is intensely personal and refreshingly un-crusty. Kozak comes out on the introduction’s first page as an equal-parts ‘TV addict’ and Iliad addict, and her devotion to both is felt on every page. It is possible that some potential readers will be scared off by the many references to Kozak’s favourite episodes of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, various incarnations of Star Trek etc.4 (although she is careful to ensure that no prior knowledge of any of these shows is required). Some, in turn, may not appreciate Paris leaving the battlefield ‘in an Aphrodite cloud-teleportation move’ (p. 61), Hektor standing his ground because he has ‘called for this damn duel’ (p. 75), and other not-quite-orthodox formulations. But the cynics would be depriving themselves of a book that – if not at all points, certainly often enough to reward the effort – sparkles with insight.5

The main strength of Kozak’s treatment is its insistence on taking the Iliad as a work to be performed and received sequentially. Of course, Kozak is not the first to do so;6 yet her work stands apart for carrying the exercise through to an unusual extent. Kozak constantly measures the narrative in performance time (things have happened ‘10 minutes ago’ or ‘about two hours ago’), and hypothesizes about breaks in the performance at regular, meaningful intervals. These measurements, combined with careful reading, and regularly with parallels from TV series, are often revealing. Thus, when Sarpedon asks Hector (who has been absent from the narrative ‘for over forty-five minutes’, p. 47) where his might has gone (πῇ δή τοι μένος οἴχεται πρὶν ἔχεσκες, 5.472), Kozak compares a moment in an episode of The X-Files in which Scully asks Mulder (who has been absent for two seasons) ‘God, where have you been?’. One might argue that we don’t need television poetics to recognize this ‘narrative “wink” at the audience to re-introduce a major character’. Yet Kozak’s approach regularly did ‘open up the text a bit’ (p. xv) for me in ways that I had not previously considered.

Kozak’s personal experience of performing (parts of) the Iliad also yields some interesting insights. Not all of them will be convincing to everyone: in a footnote (p. 253, n. 44), Kozak reminisces about performing the mother-swatting- away-a-fly simile at 4.130-3, which follows immediately on an apostrophe of Menelaus: ‘I … surprised myself by addressing the entire … simile to an imaginary Menelaos … and in that moment, I could actually imagine a satisfied Menelaos looking back at me in relief. It sounds cheesy, but that is what happened.’ Cheesiness aside (the combination of simile and apostrophe is undeniably intriguing), Kozak’s take on such moments does draw out, with a sense of reality, the possible implications of live performance.

That Kozak concentrates on Hector stems, as she says (p. 21), from her ‘endlessly frustrating and addictive experience’ of this character. Kozak calls Hector ‘unknowable’, and it is perhaps unsurprising that no perfectly consistent image of the character emerges from her analysis. There is, incidentally, some tension between Kozak’s focus on this single figure and her decision to go through the Iliad as a whole: while there are valuable nuggets in her treatments of parts of the Iliad that do not deal with Hector, her treatment is perhaps needlessly diffuse as a result of that choice.

Kozak says in her preface that her ‘primary goal is to expand the idea of Homeric poetics beyond oral poetry’: in this respect the book represents, to my mind, something of a missed opportunity. Although the book does enough to show that an exploration of the Iliad through the lens of serial television poetics is worthwhile, it is left entirely up to the reader to determine precisely how the approach moves ‘beyond oral poetry’, let alone how it might itself offer new directions for an oral poetics. A more explicit and prominent discussion (in the introduction or conclusion) of the implications of Kozak’s work would have been welcome. For instance, the book offers an interesting way of looking at repetition in the Iliad: Kozak treats many repetitions as, alternatively, ‘recaps’ or ‘callbacks’, just like an episode of a television series might recap information from a previous episode to bring the viewer up to speed. The upshot of this approach is that repetition is seen primarily as an audience-directed device, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) what it arguably is in a ‘naïve’ version of oralism, i.e. merely a performer’s compositional aid.7 But Kozak never spells this out, and more generally does not attempt to map out how her work can fit into currently dominant modes of interpreting the Iliad. One may hope that she will still do so elsewhere.

Watching a lot of TV apparently makes us dumb.8 Not always: as Kozak shows, it can also enrich our understanding of narrative texts, including the Iliad. At the very least, Kozak’s book made me want to go back to that text, and to a few of my own favourite TV shows. ​


1.   E.g. in N. Lowe (2000), The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative, Cambridge (a work noticeably absent from Kozak’s bibliography); I.J.F. de Jong and R. Nünlist (2004), ‘From Bird’s Eye View to Close Up: The Standpoint of the Narrator in the Homeric Epics’, in A. Bierl et al. (eds.), Antike Literatur in neuer Deutung, Munich; C. Tsagalis (2012), From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad, Washington, D.C.
2.   Specifically M. Newman (2006), ‘From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative’, The Velvet Light Trap 58: 16-28.
3.   Kozak’s notes 31-46 on pp. 239-41 could serve as an excellent reading list on characterization generally, and characterization in Homer specifically.
4.   Kozak mines Star Trek for, among other things, the concept of ‘red shirts’ (pp. 12-13 and passim), characters introduced only to die immediately afterwards. The comparison with short-lived Iliadic figures has an effortless appeal, but also shows that there are limits to the applicability of the parallels, which Kozak does not always probe fully. Unlike typical Star Trek red shirts (at least those of The Original Series), such casualties in the Iliad typically get ‘obituaries’, similes, etc. – i.e. a back-story and context (the parallel from Game of Thrones that Kozak discusses on p. 154 is, in this respect, a better one).
5.   The book may sparkle; it also lacks polish. Kozak’s translations are not always successful (‘whoever this is, ruling it and doing lots of bad things to the Trojans’, ὅς τις ὅδε κρατέει καὶ δὴ κακὰ πολλὰ ἔοργε | Τρῶας, 5.175-6; p. 47) and occasionally misleading (‘someday we’ll make all this right with the immortal gods in heaven’, 6.526-8; p. 71, surely taking ἐπουρανίοισι θεοῖς αἰειγενέτῃσι with the wrong verb). Comments and references are sometimes oddly misplaced: ‘Glaukos appears for the first time since the catalogue’ at 7.13-16 (p. 72; Kozak then herself refers to 6.119); Athena’s agreement at 7.33-6 ‘creates audience anticipation … for the single combat between Hektor and an as-yet-unnamed Achaian’ (p. 72; but the duel has not yet been mentioned in the Iliad, or by Kozak). A moment ‘peaks interest’ (p. 35); the Iliad ‘starts in medium res’ (p. 43). Such instances occur with some frequency.
6.   Kozak rightly cites (p. 235 n. 5) O. Taplin (1992), Homeric Soundings: The Shaping of the Iliad, Oxford, as a model.
7.   Of course, more recent oral approaches have done much to bring the audience into the equation: this is, for instance, an explicit aim of the ‘traditional referentiality’ approach, see e.g. J.M. Foley (1997), ‘Oral Theory and Its Implications’, in I. Morris and B. Powell (eds.), A New Companion to Homer, Leiden, 146-73, esp. 164-73. Separately, narratological approaches have also offered fruitful ways of approaching repetition in Homeric epic.
8.   T.D. Hoang et al. (2016). ‘Effect of Early Adult Patterns of Physical Activity and Television Viewing on Midlife Cognitive Function’, JAMA Psychiatry 73.1:73-9. ​

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