Homer's Iliad: The Shield of Memory

Homer's Iliad: The Shield of Memory

Homer's Iliad: The Shield of Memory

Homer's Iliad: The Shield of Memory

Synopsis

"Thecentral image of Homer's great epic story of the wrath of Achilles," Atchity writes in his Introduction to this brilliant new study of the poem's structure, "is the invulnerable shield made for the poem's hero at the Olympian forge of Hephaistos." Atchity's subsequent revelation of the imagery as the guiding aesthetic provides a complete interpretation of the Iliad from the viewpoint of image and theme.

The major portion of Atchity's new interpretation is devoted to a comparison of the characters of Helen and Achilles, around whom center, Atchity shows, "galaxies" of characters and images that can be identified in orderly or disorderly terms, the relationship of which is the theme of the Iliad. In addition, Atchity pays particular attention to the poem's presentation of the art of words, thus making clear the relationship of memory, cognition, and action in the epic tradition.

Excerpt

During the past quarter century the study of classical literature, and of Homer in particular, has gone through something like a revolution. Part of the reason for the new look at Homer was something called "the Homeric question"—really a cluster of questions, all of them more or less wrongheaded but important nonetheless: did Homer compose orally, making up his poetry on the spot, brachiating from formula to formula ("swift-footed Achilles," "Hektor of the shining helm"), or did he use writing and achieve his majestic effects by means of revision, like an ordinary mortal? Was there ever a "Homer" in fact, or were the Iliad and the Odyssey high-class folktales, shaped, expanded, modified through a long process of folk or court tradition? What makes such questions seem wrongheaded is of course the beauty and intellectual density of the poetry. The Yugoslavian oral poets whose practice set off "the Homeric question" were interesting people and occasionally achieved rather interesting effects, but even the most sympathetic critic must admit that their work is feeble, almost silly beside Homer's. Homer, we know, was free to write, instead of compose orally, if he wanted to. We have no evidence that he was, as tradition claims, blind, like his own fictitious bard Demodokos, in the Odyssey; and even if he was blind, he could easily get someone else to write his words down and read them back to him, as did John Milton. More important, common sense would argue, it was at about Homer's time that writing came back into general use. The rediscovered tool made someone like Homer practically inevitable. Before Homer, heroic lays were apparently all short, usually about the length of a book or two of the Iliad. With the ability to look back, read one's work over carefully and thoughtfully, came the ability to weave in symbols—the connected bow symbolism that runs through the Iliad, the emblems of art Professor Atchity points out, and so forth. When one works out in full detail, as Professor Atchity does here, the imagistic, dramatic, and philosophical structure of the Iliad, it becomes difficult to believe that the poem is anything but a work achieved by the process of writing and revising.

To say that a thing is difficult to believe is of course not any sort of proof. Scholars for some reason devoted to the notion that Homer composed on his feet, like a Yugoslavian bard or the traditional black American minister, point out Homer's fondness for traditional formulae (though they cannot seem to agree among themselves about which . . .

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