Sunday, October 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Martin Mueller, The Iliad. Second Edition (first edition 1984). Bristol Classical Paperbacks. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 206. ISBN 9781853997150. £16.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Adrian Kelly, Balliol College, Oxford

[Table of Contents listed at the end of the review.]

For those of us introduced to the Iliad by the first edition of this book, the second is welcome, and not least for making its material readily available once more. Despite the plethora of recent (and imminent) general introductions and companions to Homer, this book should enjoy something of the popularity obtained by its predecessor, not least because it is written in a lucid and jargon-free style that should serve as a model for anyone producing a work of this sort. Aiming at both the undergraduate and advanced general reader, Mueller has added a reworked introduction and a chapter on repetition1 in the light of his participation in the Chicago Homer project (both less convincing than the rest), and some sections have been moved around, but otherwise the book remains largely true to its first edition.

The introductory chapter gives a useful guide to several major themes in Homeric scholarship, including the relationship between the poet and the Mycenaean world, the 'historical' Homer, the orality / literacy controversy, and the links between the Iliad and Odyssey. The treatment of 'oral theory' scholarship is perhaps a little summary (partially due to scope), and Mueller's focus is on the individual poet and his conception of the Iliad. He has a tendency actively to downplay the importance of tradition in realising that conception, but his interpretations of passages and individual phrases are rarely far from those which an oralist (such as this reviewer) would find perfectly acceptable.

The second chapter details the plot of the poem from several angles -- the broader story of the war, the individual (and similarly partial) drives of Akhilleus and Hektor, crucial episodes like the embassy and Patrokleia -- so as to allow Mueller to dwell on important events while never losing the thread of their place in the overall narrative. His depiction of the similarities shared by all the heroes is lucid, though one can always quibble with individual interpretations (Nestor is probably harshly imagined as Polonius (p. 45) or (p. 53) 'rambling', and perhaps not enough is made of the continuities in Akhilleus' behaviour in his encounter with Priam), but this does not compromise the value of Mueller's insights.

The third chapter discusses the important and often neglected issue of fighting, and restores its study to an appreciation of Homeric poetry. Mueller covers the notions of fairplay and stealth, the dynamics of the individual encounter, the gruesome details and descriptive possibilities of injury and death -- bringing out the sheer number of ways in which the Homeric poet could speak of death --, vaunting speeches and necrologues, catalogues and aristeiai, the 'chain of retribution' theme, and the structure of the poem's four battle days. Along the way, Mueller elucidates several important themes, such as the increase in vaunting speeches and gruesome slayings in Books 13 and 14, or the way in which Patroklos' actions smack of growing levels of violence which look forward to the killing machine that is Akhilleus, and the individuality of that hero's sequence when seen next to the other aristeiai of the major (and indeed minor) characters. Again, there are minor quibbles, such as the ascription of bias to 'Homer's sources' to account for the greater number of Trojans killed (and gruesomely) (p. 83), which ill fits with Mueller's focus elsewhere on the poet's autonomy, but again they are minor and do not detract from the fact that Mueller makes a serious effort to draw the battle narrative into an appreciation of the poem as a whole.

Chapter four deals with the Homeric similes and metaphors, and Mueller once more seeks to distance the poet, in his deployment of these tools, from the tradition as a whole. Narrative function, content and relevance are discussed before a detailed look at perhaps the most characteristically Homeric of all (the lion simile), with Mueller proceeding then to consider some contrastive or disjunctive effects and concluding the chapter by briefly considering the impact of the Homeric simile upon the future of epic poetry. There is always a danger that any such coverage can read like a mere catalogue of details too swiftly covered, yet Mueller manages to make many acute observations, for instance rightly decrying the prominence of a single point of comparison, and seeing the relation between Odysseus' similes and his character in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The fifth chapter turns to the divine apparatus, over whose great complexities Mueller does not try to gloss. Mueller addresses the role of divine / human responsibility and interaction both in general and with some closer analysis of key episodes, the justice of the system and the society of the gods, and also focuses on the roles played by individual deities as characters. His discussion of Zeus' power could have been more nuanced (what of the almost successful rebellion to which Akhilleus makes reference in Book 1?), Hera's role is perhaps a trifle underplayed, Eris should not be translated as "Hate" (p. 130), and Apollo's behaviour in the Theomachy is mischaracterised (p. 132). Nonetheless, Mueller shows a sensitive comprehension of the divine system, and he does not indulge in easy evolutionary theories about the poem's apparent lack of divinely guaranteed justice.

The entirely new sixth chapter concerns Homeric repetition and draws heavily on the Chicago Homer database, for which it serves as a showpiece. It is not an easy read, and to my mind it disturbs the flow of the book, returning to doubts raised in the introductory chapter (esp. pp. 21–34) about the formulaic nature of the poet's language, but now extending those doubts over all repeated elements on every scale. Both the thesis being advanced and the level of discussion seem not to fit very well with the book's purpose as an introduction to the Iliad. Throughout Mueller is taking aim at a hard-Parryist opponent, but (and one is reminded of Rainer Friedrich's otherwise valuable recent book on Homeric formulae,2 reviewed to the same end in BMCR 2008.10.27) oralist scholarship has moved on, as Mueller himself notes in the introduction. Despite this, the discussion is useful for an advanced beginner, if such a creature can be imagined, as it illustrates the complexities involved in the analysis of Homeric repetition. Mueller concludes, again not unreasonably, that the Homeric style involves a "cut and paste" aesthetic, in which some repetitions are the work of a single poet which have been re-used from an original context, together with a "poetic idiom" aesthetic, which seems to come close to the traditional referentiality proposed by J. M. Foley and some others.

As parts of all such books should, chapter seven discusses the creation of the Iliad, and proposes the eminently possible (and honestly speculative) model of a master poet who spends many years working on his text, though the process seems to presuppose both the immediate fame of the poem (which is, at the very least, debatable) and a somewhat literate figure adding bits of papyrus to an ever expanding treasury.

Mueller then seeks, more controversially, to trace the process of this accretive development, which model he aligns with Goold's vision3 rather than the better known but much more speculative theory of Nagy,4 but in doing so makes Analytical speculations which do not strike this reviewer as convincing. Mueller searches for 'problems' or 'cracks' in the narrative as traces of earlier versions, but they do not seem to be particularly problematic. For instance, Mueller contends that Pandaros' reference to his wounding of Diomedes and Menelaos (Il. 5.206-8) is "redundant and inaccurate" (p. 180), because (a) Pandaros has already referred to his wounding of Diomedes earlier in the exchange with Aineias, and (b) the collocation of the two Greek heroes here must imply that both happened during open combat. Then Mueller argues that the absence of a gloating speech by Diomedes, once he kills Pandaros, shows that the poet developed "a simpler version that survives in Book 5 but saw no need to make explicit the changed significance the death of Pandaros acquired in the elaborated version" (p. 181). This is a flimsy structure on which to build: (1) there is no reason why Pandaros should not refer to the same action twice in such a lengthy exchange; (2) the collocation proves nothing about where the woundings happened, as in Pandaros' eyes they were essentially similar actions, viz. failures of apparently successful strikes on major Greek figures -- hence they occur together in his speech of self-reproach; (3) there is no reason why a vaunt must be uttered, and Mueller's own reasoning relies on the prominence of such a theme in Books 13 and 14. Moreover, as Mueller would no doubt agree (for much of his approach is predicated on this assumption), a poet is surely not bound to use a traditional resource every time he can use it. Indeed, after Diomedes' exchange with Agamemnon in the Epipolesis, one can understand why the character focuses on deeds rather than words. Mueller's other arguments in this chapter for traces of older sections are similarly speculative.

The final chapter traces the reception of the Iliad from antiquity into the modern era, beginning with antiquity and the Odyssey as a 'sequel', sketching its reflections in tragedy and Plato before discussing Vergil's epochal reception, and then on into the middle ages, Renaissance and the present day.

The most successful parts of this book are those where Mueller's sensible interpretative skills are on show. The sixth chapter is in many ways a distraction, but throughout the work one is left with a sense that Mueller is slaying the dragons of an earlier age. Nonetheless, I will certainly recommend much of this introduction to my undergraduates as preparatory reading, especially the chapters on the poem's plot and major themes (2), its fighting (3), similes (4) and gods (5), and also the guide to its reception (8).

The Greek is always transliterated and usually translated. I noticed very few typos: p. 27 the second transliterated 'nikêsei' in the header of the table should be 'genêtai'; p. 57 the reference 'below, p. 57' should read 'p. 83'; p. 110 'Books 3 and 17' should be '3 and 18'; p. 187 'famow' should be 'famous'; p. 188 '(1920)' is surely wrong.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 1
2. The Plot of the Iliad 35
3. Fighting in the Iliad 76
4. The Similes 102
5. The Gods 116
6. Homeric Repetitions 135
7. The Composition of the Iliad 173
8. The Life of the Iliad 187


1.   Actually, this new chapter is a massively expanded recomposition of the first part of the first edition's chapter six (= chapter seven in this edition).
2.   Friedrich, R. Formular Economy in Homer. The Poetics of the Breaches Hermes Einzelschriften, 100. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.
3.   Goold, G. P., 'The Nature of Homeric Composition' ICS 2 (1977) 1–34. [4]] esp. in Nagy, G., Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 (but repeated many times since). The theory was not in the public domain in the early 1980s, and so it was naturally omitted from this book's first edition.

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