(Original Review, 2004-06-18)
Since Homer specialised in the "in media res" scenario, which modern screenplay writers, with their enormous initial back-stories - yes Superman and Spider-Man writers I am accusing you, my friends - still seem to have no concept of) we need to recognise that Homer took for granted his audience's familiarity with the Greek myth-kitty, so they might already know why, thanks to the Judgement of Paris (don't look it up!) Hera and Athena sided with the Greeks.
As I pointed out in another review, Homer deliberately does not tell all the stories but simply focuses on a particularly dramatic short period of the siege, assuming his audience will know the context. The great Athenian dramatists of five or six hundred years later (Sophocles, Euripides and ... gulp, I've forgotten his name) took a lot of their idea of the dramatic unities from Homer's example: start in the middle, keep the place of action pretty much the same, keep the time-frame short, and make the whole a unified (emotionally and philosophical speaking) piece. This sort of thing set the template, in some ways, for all of European literature. The idea was that the emotional content came from compressing the action, using diversions where necessary to explain certain bits.
Again, I will make a comparison with the great Indian oral epics, the “Ramayana” and the “Mahabharata,” which both, as stories, tend to "start at the beginning and continue until [they] reach the end, which is always the best way to tell a story", but does not always work as drama.
Homer does not send his time telling us about the first nine years of the war, nor even does he tell us about the eventual fate of Achilles, or how the war is ended. We are indebted to later writers, Hesiod and co, to leave us this information. Although, where relevant, Homer may make reference to these matters.
There may have been no single single Homer, no single genius that crafted all “The Iliad” as it is today, but, like the Bible (a composite work), or even the individual Gospels, which are almost certainly also subject to editing before they came down to us, like the Mahabharata, attributed to Vyasa, or the Ramayana, attributed to Valmiki, the canonical text is one that, to a large extent, we can imagine is seminally dependent on a single artist, and all the accretions are the work of those trying to be true to his/her vision, with some leeway given t reflect their different artistic abilities and their varying social and political beliefs.
My mind compresses some more and comes up with the Wachowskis and The Matrix. I vaguely remember that one of their innovations was to film at the top of the action, like the frames in a comic book; and that they required their lead actors to thoroughly understand the philosophical underpinnings before even opening their scripts. Homeric? And all the accretions are the work of those trying to be true to his/her vision
I like the idea of homage to an actual original, and I think it’s better to talk of preservation rather than restoration, which I find intriguing. But so many years distant, I'd equally consider 'Homer' a personification, for our convenience, of the several or many who contributed in part. That could happily stretch to encompass the entire lineage of translators.
Homer receives high praise (and rightly so) for his poetry, his in media res style, and truncated action (leaving matters open-ended and not tying up all the threads of action) have hugely influenced Western literature too. But so many years distant, I'd equally consider 'Homer' a personification, for our convenience, of the several or many who contributed in part. That could happily stretch to encompass the entire lineage of translators.
What’s the problem with “Mahabharata” from an Western point-of-view?
1. The canonical versions are in rather ancient Sanskrit.
2. There are no canonical English translations.
3. The Ramayana is about three or four times as long as "The Iliad", and the Mahabharata about three or four times longer than that!