Monday, December 17, 2012

#499. Coming to Peace with the Trojan War

One of the things I sort of accidentally did this year (among other things I stumbled into) was read a slew of books based on Homer's The Iliad.

I've been interested in this story since I was a kid, and I can't really say how this began.  I know that in high school I was already sufficiently into Greek mythology and Homer to have taken a class on the former (which was just getting started from Brenda McKee, a teacher who ended up informing, for both good and bad, my relationship with education and literature's place in it) and done a research paper on the latter (for Prudence Grant, the teacher who told Stephen King he couldn't write).  The research paper was an early step in my relationship with Homer.  Like Bill Shakespeare and the gospel writers, many modern critics don't believe the Homer we think we know actually existed, and the best research I ever did, carried out in the measly Lisbon High School library, was spent reading up on what some people had written about the topic.  It was during that period that Armand Assante's TV version of The Odyssey originally aired, part of a whole trend of such epic adaptations.

At the time, I was more interested in The Odyssey, which chronicles a mythology-rich journey home.  Later I became more interested in The Iliad, which chronicles the Trojan War, a ten-year siege of Ilium that saw Greek city states unite under the guise of reclaiming Helen from that one dude who kidnapped her from her husband.  About ten years back I initiated my original resurgence as a reader (because I was voracious as a child) during one of my summer breaks, and The Iliad was among the stories I devoured.  It was the first time I truly became acquainted with the legend of Achilles (who is otherwise associated with that whole Achilles heel thing, which is not significant in The Iliad).  In 2004, Wolfgang Peterson's Troy was released in theaters, starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, and Diane Kruger, who became an immediate sensation thanks to this film, but had to wait until Inglourious Basterds to get a truly memorable role outside of it.  I picked up one of the books I would later read at this time.  In fact, as part of my book-buying habits from the last decade, I ended up buying a lot of translations of The Iliad.

In 2009 I formulated my Reading List for the first time, making a working sense of all the books I'd amassed.  Because I am an eager if not fast reader, I saw this as a step in the right direction.  At some point, I started chronicling this List here at Scouring Monk, and then last year spun it off to its own blog, Hub City.  This year the confluence of the Trojan War finally hit, and coincidentally was kicked off with a series of books reminiscent more of The Odyssey.

My sister had been begging me to read Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books.  She's such a fan of them that she's read through them several times (this obsessive-compulsive behavior also compels her and sometimes me to watch Charmed several times over as a complete series, and relevant to this particular topic is Brian Thompson's appearance in one episode dealing with Greek myth; Thompson also appears as Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts, the version that also gave us Jolene Blalock, who subsequently starred in Star Trek: Enterprise).  I was reluctant, however, to read these books, since I have a great concern that many of the series that have cropped up in the wake of Harry Potter are not nearly as inspired.  Riordan did envision Percy well before Harry first appeared, but there are so many obvious parallels that it's not hard to see that he subsequently revised in order to make one property more familiar to the other.

That and I love Greek myth.  Riordan has an essay in a companion volume that makes the argument that he has technically made Greek myth the most popular it has ever been.  Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, but he is also a half-blood, something Riordan borrows liberally from Greek myths surrounding Zeus, who was the original ladies man (or, you know, ladies god), bedding pretty much every woman in the ancient Greek world, sometimes in surprising forms (do your own research if you want to know what that means).

If you want to know more about what I thought about Percy Jackson, you can click here and here.

Anyway, beginning in April, I started reading books based on and translated from The Odyssey and The Iliad more earnestly.  The first was the best of them, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is basically a summation of everything I want from fiction, and the best book I read all year.  There was also The Penelopiad, which was more or less the opposite, though Margaret Atwood still has my respect as one of the more notable writers of her day.  I also read An Iliad, The Anger of Achilles, and The Siege of Troy, the last of them being that book I picked up in 2004, and all of them being versions of a modern translation of The Iliad.  In fact, Siege wasn't even on the List, but I figured I might as well read it anyway, having already read two other versions.

At this point, I should note that The Iliad, regardless of who Homer was, whether or not his most famous story as we know it began as an oral tradition he helped set in stone but in fact still dictated to students, is a story about events that happened in the distant past.  Most historians believed it was only a story until Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of Troy in the nineteenth century.  This just goes to support my belief that all this griping we have today about "remakes" in movies or whatever medium is so much hokum.  A story has not even begun to reveal its true worth until it's been told again.  By this, I am all but imploring even today's indy writers to encourage each other to retell each other's tales.

(In fact, while I bring up Mouldwarp Press's "Project Mayhem" anthology accepting submissions, let's go ahead and announce the next edition, "The Song Remains the Same," which will be exactly that.)

Even before this year, I was already revisiting the story of the Trojan War thanks to Eric Shanower's ongoing comic book interpretation, Age of Bronze.  Shanower is better known these days for his adaptations of L. Frank Baum's Oz books with Skottie Young, but this will still be his legacy.

Late in the year I found myself coming back to Troy thanks to Alexander the Great, which I read not because of any deep abiding interest in the subject but because Oliver Stone's Alexander remains my favorite movie.  The book, however, makes a strong case for the conqueror's obsession with The Iliad, which led me back to Troy, and this is more or less where I will conclude.

Troy takes many liberties with established elements of the Trojan War.  Menelaus is killed off, for instance, right after his duel with Paris, at the hands of Hector.  Ajax is similarly dispatched.  Yet instead of shrinking away horrified by these alterations (as I had before with the changes Peter Jackson wrought in his Lord of the Rings films, something I've since gotten over), I saw them as affirmations of the continuing strength of the core narrative, which as the title "Anger of Achilles" in one of those translations suggests, is less about a great warrior being great than that warrior sulking in his tent for most of the story.

It's funny, because the most famous element of the Trojan War isn't even in The Iliad.  Believe it or not, but there is no Trojan Horse in Homer's narrative.  That's what makes the story of this conflict so powerful, that its most famous depiction doesn't even have its most famous element.  Homer turned what was essentially a news item into an epic about the folly of man (and god), and several millennia later we're still enjoying that story.  Alexander defined his life by following in the footsteps of Achilles.  Nestor, incredibly, tries telling everyone in The Iliad that they weren't nearly as heroic as the figures of his youth, who after all included Hercules (Heracles in the Greek, but in this instance history has since eliminated cultural differences) and Jason.

It's funny, because of all the things I write about in my blogs, I haven't touched on any of this very often, but it's as big a part of my literary makeup as anything else, whether Star Trek or comic books or professional wrestling (I reiterate that what makes me so complicately unique is that I'm willing to admit my literary makeup includes those three peculiar elements).  The story I'm working on now, Seven Thunders, is not based on the Trojan War, having more common elements with the War of 1812 (and, increasingly, the Iraq War).  I did weave a good amount of it into The Cloak of Shrouded Men, notably the entire third act.  One of my ambitions is to write a new version of Troilus and Cressida, which Chaucer and Shakespeare have previously done, notable for being set during the Trojan War.  The working title is Troy and Krystyna, and is set in Detroit, in case you wanted to know.

As I said, I didn't plan on all of this confluence in 2012.  Even more strangely, there were other common themes in the books I read this year, most of them involving literary attempts at social reform.  I don't consider myself as a very successful academic type.  Even though I graduated from college, I don't think college, much less high school, liked me too much.  I tend to learn different lessons than are strictly taught in the classroom.  Yet I was enthralled by my Trojan year, and pleased to make a record of it here.


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

My Trojan year...snicker

The closest I've come to reading the Iliad was reading I think it was called The Song of Troy by Colleen MacCullough, the one who wrote The Thornbirds. About all I remember is that there was a lot of gay stuff in it.

Tony Laplume said...

It had nothing to do with condoms!


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