In Rivers of Fire: Mythic Themes in Homer’s Iliad, C.J. Mackie seeks to bring the ‘historical’ background narratives scattered throughout the Iliad into the foreground of the poem’s reading. In doing so, he notes a serious gap within scholarship on the Iliad : namely the lack of attention paid to the role prior heroic deeds (particularly Hercules’ previous destruction of Troy) play in the poem’s contextualisation of the contemporary siege. He contends that these allusions to the heroic past are part of “the vision of a poet with a unique perspective on war, and the tragic dimension that it has for human society” (19). In order to do this, Mackie focuses on four “mythic themes”: monsters, horses, archers, and fire, and in each instance attempts to demonstrate that generational change within the representation of each serves the Iliad‘s perspective on war and suffering.
An introductory chapter and a concluding chapter enclose four thematic chapters. The first thematic chapter is entitled “Monsters”and deals primarily (as promised) “with the revenge of Achilles, and the way that various quest myths seem to lie behind the narrative in the later books of the Iliad” (21). While the identification of various monster-slayer stories in the poem is interesting, the most helpful piece of the chapter lies in the identification of the “generations of heroes”. This situates the action of the Iliad between the previous heroic generation with characters like Heracles, Jason, and Bellerophon who though not all contemporaries represent a glorious heroic past and the age of the poet who is telling the story of Achilles’ anger as an anterior event. The idealisation of the past, both by characters within the poem and by the poet reciting it, is mentioned but perhaps not given the complete attention which it deserves.
The third chapter looks at the portrayal of horses as signifiers of generational change. At the beginning of the chapter a long list of events in the poem which involve horses provides a helpful tool in orientating the reader. While it seems a rather banal point that horses were an important commodity to ancient warrior societies, Mackie goes about the discussion in such a way that the obvious nature of this fact does not become a stumbling block to a sophisticated argument. By far the best part of the chapter is the discussion of the relationship between Achilles and horses, although the discussion of the Trojan relationship to horse comes close.
The fourth chapter takes archers as its theme and so (perhaps inevitably) touches on the debate around archery as a marker of ethnicity or social class, and the author does not shy away from this task but rather plunges headlong into the controversy. This is the one segment of the book where the author takes a large amount of evidence from outside the Iliad as he makes use of the role of archery references in the Odyssey (a completely legitimate move considering the scale of the argument in which he is engaging). While Mackie does contend that there is a divide between Greek and Trojan archery, his position is quite nuanced and he does not adopt a hard-line stand in the least. It is quite possible to continue to follow and agree with the larger position advanced in the book even if one does not adopt the author’s view on this matter. Arguably his larger thesis of generational change across his key mythic themes might have been better served by not engaging in a discussion about the ethnic and class implications of Homeric archery since the rather sudden appearance of this controversy overwhelms the primary thesis for a number of pages. This, however, is a far from fatal (?) flaw and if nothing else provides for several pages of engaging discussion on an important matter.
Rivers of Fire draws its name from the fifth and final thematic chapter which (quite obviously) focuses on fire. Some of the best material of the book is contained in this section. The connection drawn between the inevitable burning of Troy and the fire of funeral pyres is beautifully made and greatly advances the reading of the poem as a meditation on the destruction and suffering of war. It is also around fire that the case for generational change across the noted mythic themes is best (?) made. In short, this chapter could prove valuable not only to those interested in the Iliad or Homeric poetry but also in the wider applications of fire in the Indo-European tradition and beyond.
The most important contribution of this book is in highlighting the very significant role which ‘history’ plays in the poem’s narrative. Deservedly much attention has been paid to the role that the foreshadowing of future events plays; however, the same amount of care has not been given to recollection of events anterior to the action of the poem. Still, Mackie does an excellent job in asserting the importance of these narratives to a holistic reading of the poem. In doing so, he reclaims the fullness of the Iliad‘s sense of chronological place by giving careful and detailed attention to the sub-narratives that make up the historical recounting of the poem. He gives considerable consideration to the specific images and allusions conjured in the retelling of these events and he is diligent in connecting them to the main action. In this way, he builds on the great deal of work that has been done in connecting the Homeric tradition with the wider Indo-European poetic tradition. The ultimate outcome of his efforts could be the connection of the Iliad to its own internal history and to the external historical context in which the poem arose. This is an important move for scholarship on the Iliad and has the potential to drastically alter our readings of the poem for the better.
Methodologically, Mackie’s approach reflects this attention both to comprehensiveness and detail. He is careful to limit the source of his evidence, by and large, to the Iliad alone, although he freely admits to referencing the Odyssey and other sources when necessary. In limiting the scope of this investigation, Mackie is not only able to give detailed attention to his material but also prevents himself from making many (if not all) of the wide sweeping generalisations and blanket assumptions that are so often the bane of Homeric scholarship. This limited focus with a view to the wider tradition makes reading this book a true pleasure.
What is unfortunate, however, is that a book that goes a great distance in reclaiming a comprehensive reading of the Iliad and advocating for an integrated approach does not itself possess such a structure. The arrangement of chapter’s around mythic images could be potentially very clarifying; however, this is not the outcome. The book’s structure often renders it disjointed and makes it possible only to see the complete (and brilliant argument) in the introduction and conclusion. As mentioned above, the arguments and discussions in the individual chapters are very engaging and well-presented; however, in terms of the comprehensive argument of the book something significant is lost by this arrangement. The most obvious evidence of this is the constant necessity for the author to refer back and look forward within the text, a habit which blemishes an otherwise clear and eloquent style. This small structural problem, however, is not enough to make Rivers of Fire: Mythic Themes in Homer’s Iliad any less engaging or insightful nor any less important to the future of Homeric scholarship.