The Homer helix

The Iliad and the Odyssey are many things. They are stories of dramatic heroism and petty cowardice, collaboration and competition, inevitable conflict and unattainable peace, duty, love, friendship, worship, play and stubborness. But most of all, the Illiad and the Odyssey are the stories of a civilisation caught between two fundamental, and opposing, human modes: competition over territory and the unquenchable thirst for roaming. Two strands orbiting each other in a helix.

In the Iliad, the armies and the heroes are locked in battle, and to remain strictly within the plot of the poem itself, the conflict isn’t resolved. For the first time in epic poetry, there is no closure, or at least no grand closure. The Trojan horse and the fall of Troy are spin-offs from the Iliad, sequels wrote and directed by others, lying outside the scope of the poem. The Illiad was never made into a feature film because, however cinematic and dramatic most of the scenes are, it ends in mid action. Achilles returns Hector to Priam, and then: ‘To Be Continued’. Filmmakers (Troy 2004, Helen of Troy 1956, The Trojan Horse 1961, etc) have always had to look outside the Iliad, especially in Virgil’s Aeneid and the Greek tragedians, for bricks and mortar to build the story of Troy. As a storyteller, Homer – or whoever composed the Iliad – gave us one of the most complicated poems ever sung. The audience gasps: and what happens next?

There is conflict in the Odyssey as well, but of a different nature. Ulysses clashes first and foremost with Homer himself. As much as the hero wishes to return to his family in Ithaca, Homer delays his arrival by putting hurdles in his way. The most revealing figure in the Odyssey is not Ulysses, or Penelope, or Telemachus, but the storyteller, who seems to embody the contradiction of the desire for return and the zest for adventure. If the Illiad is the great unclosured poem, the Odyssey is the great tormented poem, where we have a whole culture on the cusp of a momentous decision: to run away and around or settle down. The irresolution that marks an entire civilisation, encoding it in our own cultural DNA.

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