Illiad II: Do you want to live a fulfilled life?

Have you ever seen Breaker Morant, the 1980 Bruce Beresford film based on the Kenneth G. Ross play of the same name, starring Edward Woodward in the title role, Jack Thompson, and Bryan Brown? It takes place in the Northern Transvaal during the Second Anglo-Boer War, and is a war-crimes drama that explores Superior Orders, better known as the Nuremberg Defense, the politics of total war, and the tragic human cost of the death penalty. It’s a many-dimensional character study and morality tale, of sorts, and even though the main action takes place in a cliche British kangaroo court, the fact that the men are indeed guilty as charged elevates it to one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lieutenant Harry Morant is, like our hero Hector, a breaker of horses, hence the title of the movie, and the reason I’m starting this monograph off on the wrong hoof, so-to-speak. And he too is a deep, rich, fascinating and very much admired alpha male, and the best of men. Long story short, Morant and Handcock are found guilty of murdering an old vicar, but are really proxy scapegoats for higher ups and their misdeeds and incompetencies during this disastrous conflict, and when their sympathetic jailers offer them a last-minute escape via Mozambique to “see the world” Morant says, unmoved, “I’ve seen it.”

When they are seated for their execution, and refuse blindfolds, our man Morant, who reaches out to hold Peter Handcock’s hand and then shouts “Shoot straight you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it” just as the firing squad raises their rifles on command and kills them both it is, well, quite simply, a Homeric moment.

To continue our story, Achilles is finally roused to battle by the death of his dear friend Patroclus, and his mother Thetis has Ares forge a new set of battle armor for him, since Hector stripped Patroclus of his, which he’s now wearing himself. In the ancient world, every time a man is killed his armor is immediately stripped off since it was believed at the time that if you take a man’s armor you also take his glory and honor for yourself. So great care was given, even amid the whirling shrieks and bone-crunching shatter, to make sure you stripped a man of his weapons and war gear including helmet, breastplate, greaves and shield and got back somehow to your camp.

But I want to pause here for a moment and try to give you a sense of how barbaric and physically and psychologically devastating the grotesquery of war was back then. First, let me ask: have you ever killed anything bigger than your nose? I’m serious. Have you ever shot a deer, or killed a snake with a shovel. Or cut the head off a chicken and watched it run around for a while like a chi… you know what I mean. Have you? Let me tell you it’s hard to take another life: your blood is singing in your veins and there’s a lump in your gut. I’ve shot many a raccoon and it’s not easy, especially if you don’t kill them right away and they scream and gurgle, and then twitch and let out throaty, blood-gushing moans. Imagine if you were killing another human being instead? And then another. And another. While the whole time they are savagely attacking and hacking at your head or desperate to disembowel you with a spear. Rinse the blood off and repeat the next day. And the next. For ten years. It’s almost unimaginable.

Here’s Homer’s glimpse into what the exhausting slaughter was like for both the Greeks and the Trojans:

“There –
at a dead run Meriones ran down Acamas, Acamas
mounting behind his team, and gouged his right shoulder–
he pitched from the car and the mist whirled down his eyes.
Idomenius skewered Erymas straight through the mouth,
the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,
up under the brain to split his glistening skull–
teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids
with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,
mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood

and death’s dark cloud closed down around his corpse.”

And the killing was not only grisly and sickening, it was literally close up and personal too:

“Whirling he (Achilles) stabbed Dryops, speared him right through the neck–
he dropped at his feet and Achilles left him dead
he smashed Demuchus’ knee, Philetor’s strapping son…
Then on he rushed at the sons of Bias–Laogonus, Dardanus–
Hurled them off their chariot, slammed them both to the ground,
One with a spear-thrust, one chopped down with a blade…
…as Achilles charged at Piras’ handsome son,

Rhigmus who’d sailed from the fertile soil of Thrace…”

The men on both sides not only knew each other, they knew each other’s families and friends. For instance, when Agamemnon (Aeneas) finally faces mighty Achilles in battle:

“Don’t think for a moment, Achilles, son of Peleus,
you can frighten me with words like a child, a fool–
…We both know each other’s birth, each other’s parents…
They say you are Peleus’ son, that fine, flawless man;
You mother, Thetis, sleek-haired child of the Sea.
And I am Aeneas, and I can boast Anchises’ blood,
The proud Anchises, but my mother is Aphrodite.
Our parents–one pair or other will mourn

a dear son today.”

The climax of the book is when Achilles and Hector finally square off, to meet their individual fates and decide those of their armies and homelands too. Achilles in his new armor forged by Ares himself, and Hector in Achilles’ old armor, neither either flinching or afraid, and both bent on merciless murder, finally grapple and slash. Eventually Hector is killed. Achilles takes his old armor back, and then ropes Hector by the heels and drags him through the Achean camp, to dishonor him and mutilate his body (see painting above).

The Acheans then stage an elaborate funeral for Patroclus, complete with Olympic-like games, including a chariot race, a footrace, a wrestling match, and even a gladiator-type battle between Telemon Ajax and Diomedes that ends in a declared draw at the first sign of blood, as per Achilles’ rules. The prizes: horses, gold bars, cauldrons, and trophies were given to the winners.

But I wanted to tell you specifically about the chariot race, since, again, it’s an ethics lesson that could be right out of The Bible. Diomedes won the race, even though Eumelus was the best driver and had the fastest horses, because he was sabotaged by Athena, and ended up coming in last. The whippersnapper Antilochus, coming up fast behind King Menelaus, cut him off at a narrow pass and ended up taking second place. Menelaus came in third, Meriones fourth, and finally Eumelus limped in last. Achilles was filled with pity for Eumelus, and suggested giving him second prize since he was unjustly done in. Antilochus was furious, and protested vigorously. Achilles suggested giving Eumelus a consolation prize instead, and all agreed.

But then King Menelaus stood up, still seething at Antilochus, and called the man out for his unsportsmanlike conduct:

“Come over here, Antilochus, royal prince–
this is the old custom. Come, stand in front
of your team and chariot, grasp the coiling whip
that lashed them home, lay your hand on their manes
and swear by the mighty god who grips and shakes the earth
you never blocked my chariot–not by deliberate foul.”
Antilochus admitted to his underhanded maneuver and handed over the horse he had won to Menelaus. Menelaus, impressed by Antilochus’ integrity, chose to be magnanimous himself and gave the mare back to him with the gentle admonition:
“It’s only youth that got the better of your discretion,
just this once–but the next time be more careful.

Try to refrain from cheating your superiors.”

King Priam and Hecuba, on hearing the news, weep for their dear dead son, as does all of Troy. The gods do too, since Hector was much loved by all of them. Even Zeus, who summons his daughter Thetis and orders her to tell her son Achilles that he must release the body back to his father, King Priam, who will pay a fitting ransom. The King then travels incognito to the Achean camp, prostrates himself before Achilles, and begs him to give his son’s body back. They both weep, and then feast together, and eventually Priam returns to Troy with his son and the vow from Achillles that the war will be put on hold for twelve days to allow for the funeral rites befitting a heroic prince:

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

The Iliad ends just like that. No mention of Paris avenging his brother Hector’s death by killing Achilles, whose god-forged armor went to the “smartest warrior” – Odysseus, due mostly to his cunning tongue, and not Telemon Ajax, who deserved it. Ajax committed suicide because of this slight, and what he perceived as a dishonor.

And what about the famous Trojan Horse which both Cassandra and Laocoon warned against; or the complete and catastrophic annihilation of Troy itself, and the murder and enslavement of everyone left in it? Or the reprehensible hurling of baby Astyanax off the battlements to his death by the Acheans out of cruelty and hate, and because they didn’t want to risk having an heir to avenge the defeat. And the gods, enraged over such a senseless unnecessary brutality, and the razing of their temples, punished the Acheans by declaring that none would return home alive.

And Cassandra, who was raped by Lesser Ajax and ended up as Agamemnon’s war bride. And Lesser Ajax in turn was killed by Athena because of that heinous crime– drowned by Poseidon in a shipwreck. Hecuba, King Priam’s wife went to Odysseus. And Andromache, Hector’s widow, whose name means “man battler” became Neoptolemus’ concubine. Her story is told in a tragic play by Racine called Andromaque, which I happened to see by accident (and sober believe it or not) at the Comedie-Francaise in around eighty-two.

And the great King Agamemnon being murdered by his evil, scheming wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus when he finally returned home. Cassandra, Agamemnon’s war booty was also killed by Clytemnestra. And Odysseus’ ten-year adventure to get back home. (I’ve decided to re-read The Odyssey and to report on it at another time.) And Aeneus’ rescue of the few remaining Trojan refugees who ended up settling in Italy, recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid – all these loose ends and noose ends would come later.

I don’t make many definitive statements, and I won’t now, but you can’t live a completely fulfilled life if you haven’t had children, or read The Iliad, and Robert Fagles’s translation is stunning. Absolutely stunning. Forget the boredom and distaste you felt about it in high school – you were a fatuous imbecile back then, a censorious twee fartslapper. Go on Amazon and get it asap. Dive in.

If you don’t want to wrestle The Iliad (and live a full life), with its intimidating cast of characters and difficult bulk, or have children (just watch Breaker Morant instead), then spend a couple of hours engrossed in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which follows the plot line fairly accurately, since William would have been if not well-versed in Homer thanks to George Chapman’s translation, at least well-aware of him. (Sidebar note: familiarize yourself immediately with John Keats’s immensely insightful poem On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer).

By swinging wildly from tragic to comic, this “problem play,” with its numerous, morally-ambiguous infidelities and existential themes of heroism and honor that are perhaps a bit more nuanced and negative/critical, translatio studii, than the masterpiece it’s based on – becomes unintentionally modern, controversial, poignant, entwining, and instructive.

Photo: Triumphant Achilles, a fresco in the Achilleon, Corfu
May 28, 2020 — Johnny Mustard