Tradition and Design in the Iliad

By C. M. Bowra | Go to book overview

VIII
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

IT is time to turn from Homer's manner to his matter, and to ask where he found his story. The Iliad claims to deal with great doings. The fall of Troy before a confederacy of Greek invaders is presented by the poet as a historical event of the first importance. So it is natural that criticism has been devoted to efforts to disentangle truth from falsehood in the story. These efforts perhaps belong more to history than to literary criticism, but they have an interest for the literary critics because they show, or might show, how the poet selects from life and incorporates real, historical elements into a work of the imagination. For history they have a particular interest. The historical Hamlet or the historical Macbeth are known to us from the dull chronicles of an early time, and Shakespeare tells us nothing both new and true about them. But the Siege of Troy is known only from Homer, and if he can be proved to be basing his story on fact, we have added a chapter to Greek history and shed light where there has been a great darkness. That everything he says is accurate is beyond the bounds of hope or possibility, but there may be a central fact around which he constructs his story, and the aim of critics has been to disentangle this. Nor are their efforts unjustified. The Greeks always regarded the Trojan War as a historical fact. For Herodotus it was an early phase of the age-long struggle between Greeks and Barbarians,1 for the scientific Thucydides it was a political event worthy of close analysis and consideration.2 But the Greeks had less exacting a notion of scientific history than we have, and their belief in the Trojan War was based chiefly on an acceptance of the inspiration of Homer. Modern critics have tried to go farther and see whether there can be found any good reasons for the Trojan War having taken place. They have more material at their disposal than Thucydides had, and their conclusions have more chance of being final.

The Iliad has much in common with the traditional epics

____________________
1
i. 3, 2.
2
i. 9-11.

-156-

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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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