Let me tell you two secrets about The Iliad.
1. Helen didn’t willingly leave Menelaus for Paris. But she wasn’t exactly kidnapped either. Wait – does that mean she’s a victim or a tart? Ingeniously, Homer never reveals Helen’s role in the genesis of this whole debacle; he leaves it up to interpretation. She does miss her former husband:
“in Helen’s heart
a smoky sweetness and desire
for him who first had taken her as bride
and for her parents and her ancient town” (III, 163-165)
and resents her present one:
“I wish I had a good man for a lover
who knew the sharp tongues and just rage of men.
This one – his heart’s unsound, and will always be” (VI, 409-411)
She’s also completely self-deprecating.
“Brother dear –
Dear to a whore, a nightmare of a woman!
That day my mother gave me to the world
I wish a hurricane blast had torn me away
to wild mountains, or into a tumbling sea
to be washed away by a breaking wave
before these evil days could come.” (VI, 401-406)
Ultimately, we feel sorry for Helen, who is less of a manipulative queen, and more of a pawn in a big boys’ game.
2. Literary Graphic Violence was not invented in the 20th century. This poem has some gruesome realism. Some of my marginalia simply says: “eww.” Check out this passage, for example:
“At this he made his cast
his weapon being guided by Athena
to cleave Pandaros’ nose beside the eye
and shatter his white teeth: his tongue
the brazen spearhead severed, tip from root,
then plowing on came out beneath his chin.
He toppled from the car, and all his armor
clanged on him, shimmering. The horses
quivered and shied away; but life and spirit
ebbed from the broken man, and he lay still.” (V, 335-344)
Take-Away: If it’s been a while since you read classic literature, I highly suggest The Iliad. I realize it appears daunting, but it’s really quite manageable. (And if you contact me directly, I can give you a cheat-sheet reading guide that indicates what chapters you can skip without interrupting the plotline.) It’s a great read!