Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chesterton and the Iliad, Part I

Ah, the Iliad. The myth that got it right before the historians. The original Tale of Two Cities. The only story that comes anywhere close to WWI for miscommunication and epic foolishness. Even as the single thread weaves its way throughout the cloth and makes a thing that can be known in short, yet when it is known in full it surpasseth the length of comprehension; even so does the Iliad go on and on and on and on, even to the point of boring Augustine but not Teresa Boever.
I am currently in the first third of the Iliad (hence part I) and I am not hating it yet. Chesterton seemed to be a big admirer of Homer and his masterpiece, as is evidenced from The Everlasting Man. The Iliad doesn't exactly scream Chesterton at me 24/7, but there are definitely some familiar elements.
Take for example this comment from Heretics: "Ritual is older than religion." This definitely comes up in the Iliad. Several times, Homer describes the sacrificial feasts of the Greeks. In these hetacombs (or something lke that), they will slaughter the animal, wrap its meat and internal organs in fat, and roast it on sticks before eating it. I don't know about you, but this reminds me of little boys roasting hot dogs (meat, fat and organs) around a campfire. I can see it now: in Athens or Corinth, on some small street, the boys build their little fort, perhaps a little comfortable spot surrounded by bushes, and call it the Little Warriors club (no girlz allowed). They roast around a campfire whenever they can. Eventually, they take to wearing the skins of manly animals, like the wild boars their fathers have caught on hunts.
It's not as implausible as it sounds. The worship of the pagan gods began in the imagination (see The Everlasting Man agian), and I don't see why the idea of a ritual priesthood and this particular method of sacrifice couldn't have grown out of these imaginative little rascalhoods when they grew old enough to care about their religion. On a slightly more serious note, the method of sacrifice is fairly similar to the methods of the Israelites, and the ritual could have come before the pagan religion.
The pagan religion of the Iliad itself is rather imaginative. It perfectly fits the Chestertonain picture of paganism as a faith in things that are imaginative and evocative, but utterly unworshippable. As Chesterton said, if he were to cease being Catholic, he would become a pagan, and worship particular trees. The gods are fickle, changing their allegiance with the tide of battle, and they can be injured (but not killed). They are utterly interesting, however.
More interesting still, however, is the question of with whom Homer's allegiance lies. Chesterton agrees with what he says is Homer's position, that not only is Troy to deserve our allegiance, but the fact that Troy does so is the ancestor of Mideaval chivalry. At first, I was puzzled by why Troy is the proper recipient of our sympathy, but gradually it dawned on me. First, and most importantly, Troy loses. Not only is it taken by the trechary of the horse (I haven't actually gotten to that part yet), but its heroes die in much greater frequency than the heroes of Greece, for no plausible reason other than the occasional interference of the gods. The common soldiers of Troy, even though their rulers are in the wrong for having stolen Helen and refusing to give her back, are fighting (in Homer's own words) for the most goodly and Chestertonain things to fight for, their city and their families; while the common soldiers of Greece have overreacted to Helen's abduction and fight merely for honor. By one-third thru the story, Troy has tried to make peace twice, and twice have their plans been brought to naught: once by the gods, and once by the Greeks.
Most important in the battle for our hearts, however, is Hector. Only Aneas, of all the Trojan heroes, shows any willingness to be a great and daring soldier. Hector is also beset with the greatest odds of any of the characters, for he is not invincible and has to deal with the fact that the Trojans are completely unwilling to cooperate with each other. He also has a beautiful scene where he talks with his wife that Chesterton would have loved.
One final note: This is labeled Chesterton beside himself because it is about Chestertonian elements in other authors.


Hans Lundahl said...

spoiler warning

You will have to get on to the Odyssey, before you get to the horse.

The Iliad ends with Hector's burial.

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

Oh. All that spoils is my intention not to read the Odyssey. I guess I have to now, don't I? :) If I don't, all I said in that article will be hogwash.