Critic’s Corner: The ‘Iliad’: The world’s greatest love poem?

MAGGIE PAWSEY
CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST

St. Valentine’s Day is upon us, folks, so what better time to talk about love in literature? The fact that love is possibly the most widespread and most-pondered theme in all of literature points to a universal longing in every human heart – we were made to be in relationship with one another and with our God! So, grab the chocolates, dust off your emotions and dive into one of the most romantic works in all of Western literature … the “Iliad.”

That’s right, the “Iliad.”

Homer’s “Iliad” is a staple in our core class, Epic and the Person, but so often I think readers (including myself) feel it would be easier to conquer Troy than to struggle through the epic poem. The Greek culture, so crucial to understanding the context of the story, can feel impossibly distant from our own. We don’t have warriors striving for honor and glory, we don’t beg a pantheon of gods for success on the battlefield and hopefully we aren’t going to war with neighboring countries over a king’s stolen queen.

So, what does the “Iliad” have to reveal to us about the human condition? And why am I proposing that this gore-filled war story is the ideal poem to recite to your beloved over a romantic dinner date?

The entire story points us to the greatest drama our universe knows, one that has been playing out ever since the fall of man and involves each and every one of us: how far will the Lover go to recover his Beloved?

In the Iliad, King Menelaus gathers the armies of Greece in order to take Helen, his wife, back from the Trojan prince Paris who took her. Of course, there is the question, did Paris steal her away or did she go willingly? But either scenario will suit our purposes. The wife, the beloved, has left the husband, the lover. And the lover desperately wants her back.

Ring any bells? Forgive me for waxing poetic, but have you, beloved, ever strayed away from the Lover of your soul?

This story reminds me of the book of Hosea. God asks his faithful servant Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer, a prostitute. In the course of the story, she leaves him to go back to her former way of life. Hosea, deeply wounded, cries out to God, and God tells him that this is how he feels when the Israelites turn away from him. But God will not give up pursuing his beloved people, and Hosea seeks out Gomer to love her, treat her with dignity and bring her home again.

How far will the Lover go to recover his Beloved?

Menelaus is willing to fight an entire war, even risk his life, to bring Helen home. But romantic love isn’t the only example of the lover-beloved tension. Cryses, the father of a girl taken by Agamemnon as a war-bride, goes to great lengths to bring his daughter home to him. He is willing to give Agamemnon everything he has because his daughter is priceless to him. Priam, the father of Hector, risks his very life to recover the body of his dead son. In a brotherly way, Achilles loves his friend Patroclus so much that his death is the only thing that convinces Achilles to go back to the battlefield.

The whole “Iliad” is full of lovers risking everything for the person they love. Read in this light, how can this story do anything except point us to the way God loves us? God does not even withhold his Son for our sake. What greater divine romance is there?

It’s also a great conversation starter for your special someone: “Honey, if I was taken from you, would you fight a 10-year-long war to win me back?”

Quick disclaimer: I am not saying that the “Iliad” was written with this intention. Homer and his audience were pagan. But the theme of a lover sacrificing for his beloved is universal, and if you can’t stand the “Iliad” any other way, perhaps you can appreciate it as a reminder of the great love God has for us.

The mythology and cultural contexts that went into crafting this epic poem are complex and rich, and believe it or not, there is so much more to unpack from Homer’s work. If you are interested in completely changing the way you look at the Iliad (as though this column hasn’t done just that), check out the essay “The Sacrifice of Achilles” by Glenn Arbery in his book “Why Literature Matters.”

The call for great book recommendations is still going! If you could write the Critic’s Corner, what book or movie would you critique? Send your reply to troub@franciscan.edu and see if your idea makes it to print!

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