Monday, June 16, 2014

Looking Back on the Iliad

Well, the Iliad is accomplished!  On Saturday, June 14, 2014, from 10:00 a.m. to about 10:30 p.m., eighteen Ottawa storytellers brought a room full of dedicated listeners (150 of them!) along to Mount Olympus, abode of the blessed everlasting gods; to the vaulted undersea cavern of the sea-nymph Thetis, mother of Achilles; to the workshop of the divine artificer Hephaestus; to the war-camp of the Greeks, among the black, hollow beaked ships that had lain high and dry on alien sand for nine long years; into the palace of Priam, king of that ill-starred city, sacred Ilium; and most of all, onto the broad and calamitous battlefield on the plains of Troy.

I am proud of my companions – tellers of all shapes, sizes, styles and temperaments, who made the effort to become a team and pass the thread of the story unbroken from one to another; who came to grips with this hard, frequently violent text and found currents that ran deeper than battlefield bloodshed.  We started out, I think, rather appalled by the Iliad –by what we had signed on for.  So much of it is alien and harsh: so many quasi-clinical descriptions of spears piercing various body parts; so much fickleness, deception and unfairness on the part of the “blessed” gods; so much ultimately pointless death.  In other words, so much war. 

In truth, the Odyssey is easier to like (though its climax is arguably more vindictively gory than anything in the Iliad).  The Odyssey is rich in varied and adventurous episodes, fully realized characters, even humour. The goddess Athena shows herself more likeable in her consistent helping of Odysseus.  By contrast, with the Iliad we are mostly in the trenches.  Character after character is given a personality and a name only as a prelude to sudden death.  We hear briefly of his parentage, his beautiful homeland, his lovely armour, perhaps his hopes and fears; then he is falling under the wheels of an enemy’s chariot, struck down by arrow, spear, sword or rock, and darkness engulfs him.  The Iliad is harder to learn, harder to tell, harder to listen to.  But it has its rewards.

We have argued (not so much amongst ourselves, but with our friends and families) about whether the Iliad glorifies war.  It strikes me that, as we tellers became more and more involved with the text over these past months, it was increasingly rare for one of us to express that view.  There is room for legitimate disagreement here; but to my mind Homer’s dispassionate, almost surgical descriptions of the intimate violence of man against man is worlds away from the gung-ho fantasies of the more simple-minded patriotic war movies.  The Greeks and the Trojans may hate each other, but there is no evidence that Homer hates either, or that he identifies either side as “the good guys.”  He is amazingly even-handed and unromantic in describing this war.  He does not even pretend that it ultimately has any meaning or value, except perhaps as an opportunity for men to show courage or cowardice, cruelty or mercy.  Troy will fall and be pillaged, not because its inhabitants are more sinful than other people, but because Fate has ordained it.  There are causes for the disasters (Paris’s favouring of Aphrodite over Hera and Athena; Agamemnon’s arrogance; the pride of Achilles and Hector) but on deeper reflection these “causes” seem to be merely the playing out of forces beyond human understanding.

Yet some things are being glorified here.  There is glory in the beauty and strength and speed of the warriors (and of their horses!).  When they show courage, or mercy, or sound judgment, or skill with words or weapons, we are surely meant to approve. 

Somehow we can’t help liking Hector, though he gives evidence of being as violent as Achilles, as ready to take vengeance on the dead.  Perhaps it is because Homer shows him as a father, kissing his wife and young child and heading off to another day of grim battle.  We find it hard to like Achilles, but we see him compelled against his will to grow, to experience terrible loss, guilt,  responsibility, acceptance and ultimately even a little compassion.  Priam is “a violent-tempered old man,” not a kindly grandfather figure.  Crushed by sorrow, he shows all the selfish cruelty of sorrow, wishing his lesser sons had died instead of Hector; and yet we cannot help pitying him.  Even Zeus, demonstrably short on pity, pities Priam.  Mired in loss, all the old king  asks is a chance to grieve properly for his son: “Achilles can kill me then and there, once I have taken my son in my arms and wept my fill.”

People have been talking and writing about the Iliad for almost three thousand years.  This is all I have time to add for tonight.  Thank you, Jan Andrews and Jennifer Cayley, for leading us in this project, this climb.  Thanks, Ellis Lynn, for sharing the final chapter with me.  Thanks Marie, Jacques, Katherine, Kathryn, Kim, Daniel, Nicole, Anne, Phil, Catherine, Marta, Dean, Mary and Jeff, for digging deep, finding the thread, and letting it shine. And thanks to the listeners, who made it real.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

June 14th: Hear the Iliad Told Aloud, from Memory (Homer Would Approve!)

Let me be frank: If you start feeling restless when a Youtube video lasts longer than 30 seconds, you might not be up for a day-long telling of Homer’s Iliad.  On the other hand, the Iliad might surprise you.  You might even surprise yourself, discovering a talent for letting a spoken story unfold in your mind over several hours (with lots of breaks, of course!).  I know that when the Ottawa Storytellers used the same approach to tell the Odyssey a couple of years ago, many who were not expecting to stay for the whole thing ended up coming back after every break, caught up in the ancient epic.  Of the brave audience who began the journey with us at 10:00 a.m., I think only one dropped out before the end.  We’re hoping for similar success with the Iliad.
(Picture source: Wikipedia)

 One of the oldest (and most influential) surviving works of Western literature, the Iliad tells the story of the critical days near the end of the Trojan War. As Greeks and Trojans battle on the plains of Troy, heroes on both sides strive for honour with bloody deeds.  The Greeks face defeat when Achilles, their greatest warrior, withdraws from the conflict.  Meanwhile, the all-too-human gods of Olympus meddle continually, but even the gods are ultimately powerless to alter destiny. 

It is a story that has gripped audiences for almost three thousand years.  Rooted in the oral tradition, it is a tale that has soaked into the very roots of Western literature.  Alien and familiar by turns, the epic sets forth the terrible cost of war for those who fight and for those who wait at home.  Join 18 storytellers on the plains of Ilium (i.e. at the 4th Stage of the National Arts Centre) as  Ottawa StoryTellers and two women productions evoke the events of the Iliad in all their complexity, in a twelve-hour telling of this epic tale.  Not something that happens every year, believe me; don’t miss it, if you’re interested!

Tickets for the full day (10:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m) are $60; tickets for the evening only (4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)  are $40.  See
Student discounts are available. Please note there is a surcharge if you buy online through Ticketmaster (