The Iliad: the Grand Design

The Iliad does not tell the whole story of the Trojan War; but it assumes that we have heard of Agamemnon, Priam, Odysseus, etc: the central figures of that cycle.

It also includes people originally at home in other story cycles:
Diomedes, (from the story of Thebes); Nestor, (from the Peloponnese),etc.
Without narrating it directly, the poem does aim to include the whole story-the (first) duel of Paris and Menelaus in Book Three; the death of Achilles and the sack of Troy, (allusions throughout the poem).

It applies to Troy the motif, familiar in heroic song, of the anger and withdrawal of a hero: cf. 9.524, "This is what we have heard about the men of old, when one of them was seized by anger..."and organises the Trojan War round it- adding other motifs, such as: the tragic wish; the sending of a substitute; the battle with a river (21); the divine wedding (14).

This has the effect of promoting what could originally have been only a device for delaying the fall of Troy into the centre of the whole story -when Achilles' anger is over, Troy will fall.

The originally central figures of the story of Troy were: Helen, Menelaus, and Paris, (the triangle); Agamemnon versus Priam, (the commanders); Odysseus, (who devised the Wooden Horse). The promotion of Achilles created a need for a great opponent for him - Hector.

The centrality of the quarrel made psychology important. Rather than being about a normal piece of property, it is about a loved woman; besides Helen, another important woman enters the plot. And Hector is contrasted with the solitary figure of Achilles by being given a wife, (and the archetypical scene of The Warrior's Farewell, (6) is thus included in the poem).

In the simple plot of the quarrel, Achilles is in the right - though the character of Diomedes, 4.401ff. and 9. 29ff. shows that even a great hero could have reacted less violently. By the end of Book Eight, that plot has worked: Book Nine, Agamemnon climbs down, (and the fall of Troy could begin).

First change of the plot: Achilles finds himself unable to use his victory. This required the great speeches of Book Nine. Books Eleven to Fifteen: the Achaeans are pounded towards disaster, (various delaying and expanding devices).

Book Sixteen: Achilles half returns- his second mistake, connected with his first. Seventeen: death of Patroclus, (and Achilles begins to suffer).

Second change of plot: the anger of Achilles is redirected against Hector. Eighteen to Twenty-two: working out nf the redirected anger: death of Hector (various delaying and expanding devices). Twenty-three and Twenty-four: Coda. Achilles is restored to his true nature and shows humanity to the Achaeans and even to Priam. The gods mark off the limits of what even the greatest man can do. Thus the old anger motif is transformed from simple to complex, in action and psychology, allowing Achilles to express doubts about heroism itself, and ending with a deeper perspective on human life: even deadly enemies are in the same boat and can share a moment of identification.

On the level of literary technique, the whole story is included by indirect means, actual narration being limited to a few events in the middle of the War. An art of implication:
Two, listing of the army as it was at the beginning of the War, at Aulis
Three, duel of Paris and Menelaus; Helen on the wall; Priam is shown the Achaean leaders;
Three and Five, echoes of the Judgment of Paris
Four, Troy breaks the truce
Six, Hector predicts the sack of Troy
Seven, proposal to give Helen back: shouted down by Paris
Eighteen, Twenty-two, Twenty- four, predictions of Achilles' death
Six, Twenty-two, Twenty- four, predictions of the fall of Troy and the fates of Andromache and Priam.

Pervasive: the role of the gods.

Structure: as the poem proceeds, there is a crescendo of ferocity and horror: more horrific killings; more moving supplication- scenes; crueller interventions by the gods, (Athena to Hector, Twenty-two); grander arming-scenes...
The last quarter is increasingly dominated by death; Achilles' massacres
corpses of Patroclus and Hector,
Achilles' imminent death.

Pattern of apparent success, final disaster: Agamemnon; Patroclus in Sixteen; Hector, on a bigger scale; Achilles himself.

A concentric pattern, perceptible at the beginning and end of the poem:
One, Twenty-four: an old man suppliant; Thetis and Zeus intervene
Two, Twenty-three: parade of heroes, for the first and last time
Three, Twenty-two: the two great duels; Trojans on the walls
Four and Five, Twenty and Twenty-one: gods struggle on earth; Diomedes and Achilles
Six and Nineteen: personal scenes- Hector in Troy; Achilles and Agamemnon in the camp

Archetypical scenes:
The good and the bad brother
Good and bad marriage
Warrior's farewell from his wife
The leader versus the champion fighter
Old man helpless before youthfill power
Noblesse oblige- the duties of rank, (Sarpedon in Twelve)
Women lament over the dead
Scenes of feasting, prayer to the gods, council of war, athletics, forging a shield, paying a visit, etc.

The similes:
wild animals, weather, the sea, reaping, dyeing ivory, woman in childbirth, stirring up wasps, sandcastles, felling trees,etc, etc.

The paradox and problem of heroism:
the drive to self-assertion and individual honour, versus the common good:
the disastrous mistakes of Agamemnon,(One);
Achilles, (Nine);
Hector, (Twenty-two)- and cf. Odysseus' self-revelation to the Cyclops, Odyssey Nine, 492ff.

All-pervasively, the divine perspective:
in the mythical world we can see the divine workings.

The career of Hector, the delusive triumph of Achilles, the fall of Troy: and the will of Zeus worked itself out, (1.5).

Jasper Griffin
Balliol College, Oxford