Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Book 3 line 190 to end Book 6
I’ve been reading a couple of pages of The Iliad each morning for a couple of months now – with a break over the New Year when I was away from home. The slow read is a terrific way to encounter this book for the first time, not just because it allows me to mull things over rather than ploughing ahead for the story, but also because I get to notice the way The Iliad crops up in other parts of my day.
For example, in George Clooney’s movie The Tender Bar, which we watched on a streaming service this week, The Iliad is the first book the protagonist is required to read at college, as the foundational text of western literature; the professor insists that they read, and buy, his own translation.. On Twitter, someone commented on a photo of a tennis player in the Australian Open, ‘I still think he looks like something out of The Iliad.’ (I love that ‘still’.)
Rather than give an account of the fighting and blustering and wounding of gods that has gone on in these last weeks (yes, I did say wounding: Aphrodite gets a cut on the hand and Ares is badly wounded by a spear – who knew?), I’m just going to blog about a tiny moment towards the end of Book 6.
Hector, the great Trojan hero, has been sent back from the battlefield to pass on instructions to the women of influence to appeal to Athena for help. While he’s in the city, he drops in on Paris and Helen, whose liaison is the cause of the whole horror. He chides Paris for staying away from the battle (after being removed by Aphrodite from the middle on a one-on-one combat with Ajax), and he refuses Helen’s seductive invitation to sit with her. Then he seeks out his wife Andromache, whom he finds on the battlements watching the fighting below:
She joined him now, and following in her steps a servant holding the boy against her breast, in the first flush of life, only a baby, Hector's son, the darling of his eyes and radiant as a star ... Hector would always call the boy Scamandrius, townsmen called him Astyanax, Lord of the City, since Hector was the lone defence of Troy. The great man of war breaking into a broad smile, his gaze fixed on his son, in silence. (Book 6, lines 471–480)
A baby! I’m no expert, but I can’t think of any other babies in epic poetry. And this isn’t just any baby, but one who brings a broad smile to the face of a great warrior in a moment’s respite from hideous bloodshed.
Before Hector returns to the battle, Andromache pleads with him not to make her a widow and leave the baby an orphan. He replies that he won’t be killed unless it’s his fate and no one can escape their fate, but the one thing that weighs him down is the thought of her being taken into slavery. Then:
In the same breath, shining Hector reached down for his son – but the boy recoiled, cringing against his nurse's full breast, screaming out at the sight of his own father, terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest, the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror – so it struck his eyes.
Hector and Andromache both laugh, Hector takes the baby in his arms, and we realise that this is a story about human beings who are very like us. I’m pretty sure I’ve read similar stories about soldiers returning from the wars of the 20th century. For all its strangeness (the nurse, the bronze and horsehair, the unspoken cultural stuff about the firstborn son), this moment is astonishingly alive. Knowing as we do that Hector is to be killed (not a spoiler – I imagine that the first listeners of The Iliad knew how the story was going to turn out), we’re all the more moved by it.
It’s worse than that. I did a bit of a dive, and found that, though there are a number of stories about the baby, the main one says the Greeks threw him from the city walls so that he couldn’t rise up to fulfil the promise of his nickname and lead the Trojans in a war of revenge. And Hector’s speech about Andromache being enslaved by the Greeks was just spelling out what the first audiences knew was actually going to happen. The sweet domestic moment is a tiny, hopeful eddy against the dark tide of fate.
Then Hector, ‘slow to turn from the spot’, heads back to the war, to be joined by the insufferable Paris, who is described in this way:
glittering in his armour like the sun astride the skies, exultant, laughing aloud.
This is amazing story-telling.