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Why is The Iliad a classic? November 10, 2010

Posted by Heather J in Uncategorized.

Please welcome Terrence Hawkins, author of The Rage of Achilles, who is here to share his thoughts on why people are still interested in reading The Iliad after all these years.  Be sure to check out the bottom of this post for your chance to win a copy of The Rage of Achilles and another great book for yourself!

When I wrote about The Rage of Achilles a year ago I was focused—-typically enough—on my own experience of authorship.  That is, what it was like to retell a classic. But over the course of twelve months of readings and signings and reviews, favorable and otherwise, I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm the original still generates.  So now I’m interested by the opposite question—what makes a classic classic?  Why do people still care?  Why do they read it?

Let’s face it: there are a lot of obstacles between Homer and us.  His (or their) characters inhabit a world so completely different from our own that they might as well belong to another species.  The gods are everywhere, lurking in every grove, personifying the river Scamander, meddling in every minor conflict.  And Homer meant it: the gods were no mere allegory for natural forces or innate psychic drives but actors as real as any soldier.   Though of course much more to be feared.  So for the Iliad’s human characters, religion is no Sabbath spiritual exercise but a matter of hard practical necessity.  And their motives often arise from considerations natural to a bronze-age warrior society but completely foreign to ours: pride, or its converse abhorrence of shame, the need to save face even at the expense of the rest of your skin.

And of course another factor making the Iliad occasionally hard-going is the strictures imposed by its origin as a transcribed oral poem.  That is, a lot of repetition and reliance on epithets so that the audience could keep characters straight in their heads over the course of many evenings’ recitation.

But for so many these barriers are easily overcome.  Why?

I think the reason the Iliad still speaks to us so clearly is that no matter how strange the setting or different the characters it is still a fundamentally human story about the most basic relationships and motives.   It’s a story about brothers—-Hector and Paris on the Trojan side, Agamemnon and Menelaus on the Greek, in each case the older brother prosecuting a war on the younger’s behalf. It’s also about fathers and sons; Priam ransoms back his boy, which Achilles surrenders out of respect for his own father.   And while the pride-driven behavior of Aegean warlords occasionally seems inexplicable, Menelaus’ and Achilles’ thirst for revenge, and Hector’s defense of his country, right or wrong, at all costs, are compelling and contemporary.

So I think the Iliad has survived   thirty centuries to remain the cornerstone of Western literature because it first showed us what a story was all about.  It hasn’t changed.

About the author:

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. His website can be found at www.terencehawkins.net.


The Prize: a signed copy of The Rage of Achilles, by Terrence Hawkins AND a copy of The War That Killed Achilles, by Carolyn Alexander

The Rules:

  • Leave a comment sharing why you think a book becomes a classic
  • Make sure your comment includes a way to contact you
  • Per the publisher, this contest is open to US residents only
  • Contest runs through Nov. 28
  • Winner will have 24 hours to respond to the notification email


1. LifetimeReader - December 1, 2010

I am so, so sorry I did not see this before! Did you get entries before? If not and it is not too late, I would love to enter. I heard somewhere recently that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say to readers. I love that idea, that if I read it now, if I read it again in a decade, if my ancestors read it or my descendants, it will continue to be powerful.

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