I must admit that I was not very enchanted while reading The Iliad for the first time, as a freshman at Thomas Aquinas College. However, when I finally got to the last chapter, the whole thing turned upside-down for me in an unexpected and wonderful way. I have since re-read the Iliad two or three times and enjoy it more with each re-reading.
The story is primarily about a personal conflict between two of the Greeks fighting on the same side during the Trojan War. As such it explores many interesting and human concepts, including pride, envy, hate, love, death and the meaning of life.
The concept of war is particularly interesting in this story, which is known for its gruesome battle scenes. Over time (and with re-readings) I came to see the phenomenal impact of decrying war through detailed accounts of those who died in battle. Each man is described with great care, including where he is from and who his loved ones are, before the author pointedly describes his horrific death. These descriptions humanize the individual – and increase the impact of the story.
There’s a great deal more that could and should be said about this poem: it is beautiful, it is epic, it crosses the eons of time to speak to us potently today and it should be widely read and discussed.
G.K. Chesterton on The Iliad, from The Everlasting Man in the chapter “The Antiquity of Civilization“:
Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.