Tradition and Design in the Iliad

By C. M. Bowra | Go to book overview

IX
THE CHARACTERS

FROM his predecessors Homer inherited his Tale of Troy. But his task was to tell the tale again in a new form, to remodel it completely. Tradition gave him not only the outlines of the story but the main characters on whom the story turned. To these he had to give new life, while keeping their traditional features. His success was so great that we must believe that he treated his material with the utmost freedom, and re-created when he might only have repeated it. It would be pleasant if we could tell what originally the characters were, and from what different sources they sprung. But here even analogy fails us and we are faced with a complete blank of evidence. His characters have been claimed as genuine figures of history,1 as gods brought down to the likeness of men,2 as ancient figures of folk-tale.3 From any or all of these sources they may ultimately have come. Nor is it impossible that some were even invented by Homer. After all he was a poet, and creation was his privilege. Early epic confounds fiction with fact, and the two elements are hard to unravel unless we have the independent testimony of history. So until the Hittite records confront us with the name of Agamemnon, we cannot tell whether he is a real man like Theodoric in the Germanic epic, or a creature of folk-lore like Beowulf, or a degraded divinity like Satan in Paradise Lost. Such questions, however fascinating, cannot yet be solved, but they lie far behind Homer. He must have found his important characters existing in earlier poetry and possessing some of the characteristics which he gives them. His stock epithets bear the marks of ancient tradition, and show his heroes as old story knew them. Agamemnon must always have been ἁναξ ἀνδρω + ̑ν, Odysseus πολύμητις, Achilles πόδας ὠκύς. With such simple labels early poetry differentiates its characters, and helps its hearers to remember them. This simple device exists in most early ballad poetry, and no

____________________
1
Leaf, Homer and History.
2
E. Bethe, Homer iii. passim.
3
J. A. K. Thompson, Studies in the Odyssey.

-192-

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Tradition and Design in the Iliad
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • I - Tradition and Design 1
  • II - The Origins of the Epic 27
  • III - The Hexameter 53
  • IV - Some Primitive Elements 67
  • V - Repetitions and Contradictions 87
  • VI - The Similes 114
  • VII - The Language 129
  • VIII - The Historical Background 156
  • IX - The Characters 192
  • XI - Homer and the Heroic Age 234
  • XII - Homer's Time and Place 251
  • Index 275
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