Why “The Iliad” Still Matters

by Jeffrey Thomson

The Iliad is a book of transitions; it is a fundamentally a book of liminal moments. This is a story from the basement of history—from the moment when we began the movement from an oral storytelling culture to a culture of written literature. It establishes many of the characters and tropes of the modern literary world, while living up to almost none of the norms. It is a challenging, sprawling, and difficult text that is likewise small and intimate in its essential movement. Its characters and heroes interact with gods and Fate but play out an ultimately human story.

The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, but it is not about the Trojan war. Rather it is about the making of a person—Achilles. We watch as he moves from rage to pity. From unyielding to anything but the direct commands of the gods to yielding to the will of another human being. Achilles is “divinely” selfish in the beginning of book one, but by the end Achilles has learned to feel pity for another mortal. His final acts of grace and generosity show that he has abandoned his selfish anger and found a connection to another human being.

For writers, The Iliad is an unending fountain of characters and moments that can be plumbed and investigated, written and rewritten. It is the text that gave us the world’s first fan fiction—The Aeneid—and continues to provide grist for that mill (Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, the film Troy, etc.). In a moment of—again—invasion and war, reading and talking about Homer’s classic war story will let us—once again, as well—think about what it ultimately means to be a human being.

Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and the author of 10 books including Half/Life: New and Selected Poems from Alice James Books, the memoir fragile, The Belfast Notebooks, The Complete Poems of Catullus, and the edited collection From the Fishouse. His newest book is Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory. He has been a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and the Hodson Trust–John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington.

Read The Iliad with Charlotte Lit: Join us for “Reading The Iliad in Wartime” with Jeffrey Thomson. Over six sessions beginning September 20, we will read and discuss Homer’s original classic and think about the way it speaks to our time and the way other writers have used this story to illuminate theirs. This is a “Zoom Plus One” event — when you register you can bring a friend for free! More information and registration here.