Thursday, March 4, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Kostas Myrsiades (ed.), Reading Homer: Film and Text. Madison/Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009. Pp. 258. ISBN 9780838642191. $56.50.
Reviewed by Robert J. Rabel , University of Kentucky

Table of Contents

The film Troy sparked public interest in legends associated with the Trojan War. The Troy Fanfiction Archive contains more than 860 stories inspired by the film and--in some cases--by a reading of the Iliad as well.1 Classical scholarship has likewise not been slow to respond. Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic was edited by Martin M. Winkler and published in 2006.2 In a similar vein, Myrsiades' book, here reviewed, offers an introduction by the editor and nine essays by scholars exploring various aspects of Homeric poetry and of Troy. For the most part, the essays are cogent, well argued, and worth the reading. I offer summaries and brief comments.

Leading off, Myrsiades' "Introduction: Why Read Homer?" offers a brief sketch of the history of Homeric scholarship. He answers the question here posed by pointing out how historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and folklorists all make use of Homer (p. 7). The poems' long run of popularity might also be explained by the high quality of the stories told, but perhaps that goes without saying.

In "Homer as History: Greeks and Others in a Dark Age," Shawn Ross argues that the Homeric poems "reflect a coherent, historical society external to the poems themselves" (p. 23). While some scholars view the poems as repositories of institutions and practices accruing over the span of half a millennium or so, Ross offers a different (if not new) perspective. The society so reflected, he says, is that of the eighth century BC. Rather than refuting one by one alleged inconsistencies and anachronisms thought to occur in Homer, Ross proceeds by deductive reasoning. He begins by asserting what he takes to be two facts: "(1) that the Homeric epics are the product of an oral tradition, and (2) that the oral tradition behind the epics is comparable to oral epic poetry as it has been observed by anthropologists and historians elsewhere" (p. 25). From these premises, he draws the conclusion that by their very nature the Homeric poems "must depict--within limits and with certain predictable distortions--a unified and historical Homeric society" (p. 25). The conclusion may well be true, but the validity of the argument through which it is reached seems open to question.

In "Geras and Guest Gifts in Homer," Rick M. Newton makes the case that Odyssean hospitality and gift-giving (xenia) resemble and assume the ethical complexity characteristic of exchanges originating with regard to the Iliadic battlefield, the corresponding currency in the Iliad being geras rather than guest gifts. The Iliad, he shows, provides indications that gifts and war prizes are analogous, while the Odyssey builds upon audience expectations that the analogy holds. The argument is compelling, but, exploring the consequences of this insight, he seems to go too far in seeing a close analogy between Odysseus' exposure of his crew to destruction at the hands of the Laestrygonians in the Odyssey and Achilles' withdrawal from the Achaean army at the beginning of the Iliad. Newton claims that Odysseus, like Achilles, "wills the death of his comrades" (p. 80).

John B. Vlahos' chapter is entitled "Homer's Odyssey, Books 19 and 23: Early Recognition; A Solution to the Enigmas of Ivory and Horns, and the Test of the Bed." Vlahos undertakes to solve two long-standing problems in the Odyssey: first, the association of horn with truth and ivory with deception in Penelope's speech to Odysseus in Book 19 (560-67), and, secondly, the so-called test of the bed, which Penelope is usually believed to arrange for her husband in Book 23. Following Anne Amory, Vlahos suggests that by associating horn with truth and ivory with falsehood Penelope wishes to convey to her husband that he will best destroy the suitors with a bow made of polished horn, rather than with a sword (p. 97). From their first meeting, Vlahos sees the couple engaged in covert conspiracy to destroy the suitors, and he speaks of "cryptic communication" (p. 98) between them. (Vlahos follows the suggestion of Philip Harsh that the communication has to be cryptic, so that the serving maids will not understand.) On the question of recognition (early or late), I think it is important to keep in mind the gap that may exist between recognition and acknowledgment, a gesture affirming that recognition has taken place.3 While I agree that Penelope quite early recognizes that the beggar is her husband, I think that she withholds acknowledgment until Book 23, which has traditionally been thought to contain the famous "test of the bed." Vlahos argues that no such test takes place. Rather, since Penelope has long recognized Odysseus as her husband and has conveyed to him her recognition, she is not seeking proof of his identity but rather a sign that he retains for her the love he had before he went off to Troy. Vlahos' analysis may convince many. However, I think that Scott Richardson's "Conversation in the Odyssey," the next chapter in the volume, provides a sober corrective to the view that the interactions between Odysseus and Penelope are made fully intelligible by the poet to his audience, provided only that one understands and interprets the text correctly.

Richardson makes a convincing case that communication in the Odyssey "is smoke and mirrors, and the world of the Odyssey is characterized by distrust and uncertainty" (p. 117). (The same uncertainly, I would argue, applies to communication between poet and audience.) Richardson begins with Nausicaa's request to her father Alcinous that she be permitted to leave the city in order to do the laundry, so that her brothers will be able to go dancing wearing freshly cleaned clothes (6.60-65). For his part, Alcinous sees through and decodes his daughter's true wishes; he understands that she is really thinking of her own wedding day (pp. 117f.). "This indirect interchange," Richardson says, "is a paradigm of the distinctive mode of conversation in the Odyssey" (p. 118). Communication sometimes takes place beneath the surface of the words being spoken when a speaker directly addresses someone other than the one for whom the message is intended. Just so, using what Richardson calls "the fiendishly clever bed trick" (Vlahos will surely disagree!), Penelope addresses Telemachus directly but intends to convey to the on-looking Odysseus that the two will know each other best of all and through hidden signs (p. 121). The article is a sensible and acute study of the nature of communication within the poem. While I agree that communication in the Odyssey frequently takes place beneath the surface of what is said, I am puzzled by Richardson's claim that such covert communication is sometimes "baffling to those who take it at face value" (p. 118). He cites no cases where such a reaction of bafflement is expressed in word or thought by a character or by the poet regarding a character.

In "The End of Speeches and a Speech's End: Nestor, Diomedes, and the telos muthôn, Joel Christensen offers a close reading of Nestor's claim at the beginning of Book 9 that Diomedes has failed to reach the telos muthôn in criticizing Agamemnon for a lack of courage. Diomedes swears that even if the others should flee homeward, Sthenelus and he will fight on until they achieve the destruction of Troy (9.29-49). In reply, Nestor compliments the young hero but suggests that he has not reached "the fullness of speech" (telos muthôn, 9.56). Christensen argues that Nestor endorses Diomedes' dissent but at the same time, through the plural muthôn, elucidates the rules that should properly govern speech in the Homeric world. Nestor suggests that Diomedes has inappropriately employed the language of invective, whereas public speech in the world of heroes should be devoted to the preservation of social unity (p. 149).4

Discussion of the film Troy begins with Jonathan S. Burgess' "Achilles' Heel: The Historicism of the Film Troy." Burgess credits the film on two counts: first, Troy achieves a rather Homeric effect by reducing the ten-year war to a matter of days, much as Homer reduced the war to a consideration of the wrath of Achilles (p. 167); furthermore, employing elements of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Classical culture, the film resembles the Iliad, "since the pre-Homeric oral tradition of the Trojan War haphazardly picked up and shed a wide variety of different elements from different periods as it developed through the ages" (p. 168). (Ross, discussed above, would disagree.) However, Burgess faults the film for its "historicizing" approach and lack of concern with myth. He argues that there are two main impulses powering the plot of the film, which he labels "the imperialism mode" and "the kleos mode" (p. 171). The imperialism mode is terminated abruptly by the death of Agamemnon. On the other hand, the kleos mode ultimately fails to be realized in a satisfactory manner because "Achilles has no interest in myth and therefore no credible means to achieve kleos, his main motivation" (p. 175). Yet what would it mean for a character in a myth to be interested in myth? For the most part, this is all astutely argued, and Burgess is clearly correct in observing that the film makes the claim to be uncovering the truth behind myths associated with the Trojan War (p. 169). However, what he sees as a weakness represents for me one of the film's strengths. I take the same pleasure in watching Troy that I derived from reading David Gemmell's Trojan War trilogy of novels, where there is the same imaginative conceit Burgess finds in the film, mainly that "we are witnessing prelegend reality" (p. 169).5 Overt depiction of myth in film most often fails: witness Clash of the Titans or the 2003 television version of Helen of Troy. Burgess rightly points out we live in an age that "is not really comfortable at all with myth" (p. 169). Is it fair then to criticize the film for banishing myth (p. 175)? After all, Phemius and Demodocus (and I suppose Homer himself) had to please their audiences and provide them with songs they enjoyed. The same is true of filmmakers.

In "Redefining Homeric Heroism in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy," Charles C. Chiasson provides a corrective to Burgess' view that the kleos mode in Troy is not properly realized. Chiasson shows that what Burgess calls "the kleos mode" is consummated through a redefinition of kleos, which in fact accords a proper measure of glory to Achilles: In Troy, "romantic love supplants martial valor as a constituent element of heroic kleos, triggering profound changes in characterization, especially for Paris and Achilles" (p. 195). Chiasson also grants the gods a role in determining the outcome: "The gods in the film exist inasmuch as mortals believe in them and act in accordance with this belief" (p. 197). I would go further. The gods play an active role. To paraphrase a line from an Alberto Moravia novel, taking no action implies, fundamentally, choosing a definite mode of action.6 The gods of the film are quite active in their inaction.

Bruce Louden offers "The Odyssey and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life." I approached this piece with trepidation, the idea of noteworthy parallels between epic and film seeming farfetched. I was pleasantly surprised. Louden shows that the Capra film also brings about its own definition, or redefinition, of kleos: "This is the film's new paradigm of heroism: the details of middle-class existence in a small American town have a larger significance that can take on epic dimensions, with heavenly powers observing and intervening in the hero's struggles" (p. 210). Like the Odyssey, the film opens with a heavenly council. Later, the angel Clarence shows George what life would be like in his city had he never existed, a scene that operates much like Odysseus' trip to the Underworld. Flexing his pop culture muscles, Louden points out that It's a Wonderful Life has had its own (modest) influence on later artistic works, in this case the Beavis and Butt-Head Christmas Special of 1995 (p. 226, n. 18). Continuing in the same vein, I would add that the characters Bert and Ernie in the film may be progenitors of two characters with the same names who were made famous on Sesame Street.

In "Reading The Gunfighter as Homeric Epic," Kostas Myrsiades concludes the volume by describing parallels between the Homeric poems and The Gunfighter, directed by Henry King (1950). Myrsiades believes that the gunfighter resembles both Achilles and Odysseus. Jimmy Ringo, the gunfighter, resembles Achilles in that he embraces the values of his gunslinging society but finally rejects these values as he comes to terms with his own mortality and with the influence of fate. He also resembles Odysseus, since he exercises his native cunning and wit in the (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to regain his wife and son. I suppose all of this is true, but as Raymond Queneau (along with others) has noted: "Every story is either the Iliad or the Odyssey."7 The Gunfighter seems evocative of Homeric epic only in a rather weak sense.

The book is well produced. I noticed only a few errata. P. 22 should read "the very end of the era." The reference to Morris, 1985 should probably be to Morris, 1986. P. 96 should read 'suspicion." "Apollo's tomb" on p. 167 should, of course, be "Apollo's temple."

Kostas Myrsiades has assembled a strong collection of essays. I am impressed by their quality and also by the order in which they are placed, with one essay often offering commentary or contrast with what precedes, the essays creating an inner dialogue among themselves.


1.   See
2.   Martin M. Winkler, Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006). See BMCR 2007.08.09.
3.   For the distinction between recognition and acknowledgment, see Frederick Ahl and Hanna M. Roisman, The Odyssey Re-Formed (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996) 152.
4.   Recent Homeric scholarship has increasingly come to recognize the importance of social cohesion within heroic society and has thus moved far from the position enunciated by Arthur W. H. Adkins, who famously argued that Homeric society had no words of censure "strong enough to override the claims of the agathos to do as he pleases." See Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960) 38.
5.   David Gemmell, Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005); Troy: Shield of Thunder (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007); and Troy: Fall of Kings (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).
6.   Alberto Moravia, The Lie, trans. Angus Davidson (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966) 65.
7.   See Raymond Queneau, cited in Alberto Manguel, Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007) 1.

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