I recently finished reading Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, as part of a personal challenge to read more classical literature. What better way to become a better storyteller than by studying the greatest stories in history? The Iliad, which was the first epic story to be written in the western world (circa 1250 BC), seemed like a perfect place for me to start.
I’m certainly not qualified to analyze Homer authoritatively, here are four things that I learned from his writing, as a storyteller:
1. Lead with character, not plot.
The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, but it leaves out many details of that war, including the very famous story of the Trojan Horse… something that honestly disappointed me!
But the reason was because The Iliad was not about the Trojan War. It was about a character: Achilles. By extension, it was also about Agamemnon, Hector, Menelaus, and many other characters who played crucial roles in this lengthy, brutal conflict of rage, revenge, glory, greed, and (arguably) misguided justice.
If Homer had merely recounted for us all the events of the Trojan War, it would have been a historical document, not the epic, emotional story that is still studied and loved 3,000 years later. The Iliad is a strong narrative because it focuses on its main characters; it begins with their story, and ends with their story, not a sentence before or after.
2. Simple themes are most powerful.
“RAGE…” The first word of the poem is also its primary theme. The story of The Iliad is about the rage of Achilles. It begins with the flaring of his anger after his mistreatment from Agamemnon, which results in a years-long grudge that directs his action (and inaction) during the course of the war.
The moving final scenes of the poem also center around this theme. When Achilles is forced to come face-to-face with the heart-wrenching consequences of his rage, and when he finally learns to let go, to forgive, and to make peace who those who wronged him, the story reaches its beautiful closing.
3. Every hero has a flaw.
Achilles is the archetypal hero in every way. He is a strong, powerful warrior with unmatched abilities, to the point where his singular presence on a battlefield can turn the tide of the war. He is bold and brash; he is a leader who does not like to be led. But, despite Achilles’ immortal parentage, (which plays a major part in his nearly-invincible prowess), he is still human. What makes him human is his emotions and his flaws; which in this case, sometimes overlap.
Rage. The theme of the poem. It is also Achilles’ downfall. While his grudge may be arguably justified at first, his stubborn refusal to help Agamemnon in the war, coupled with his pride, ends up getting his best friend killed. Mourning over his friend’s loss fosters the heart change that allows him to finally become a different man.
4. Create sympathy on both sides.
One thing I found very interesting about The Iliad was that it did not tell just one side of the story. While the Achaeans (Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus), who were the invaders of Troy, did receive most of the attention, Homer also focused a good deal on Hector, who led the Trojans to defend their city.
There was a touching scene in the first half of the poem where Hector’s wife begged him not to go back to war, afraid that he would not return. Hector, however, had a strong sense of duty, and desired to defend his family and his city. As Hector said goodbye to his wife and newborn son, I felt a pang of empathy for his character. I hoped that he would return to them. Consequently, I felt conflicted throughout the rest of the poem, not sure if I wanted the Achaeans or the Trojans to win. I thought this was a great narrative tool… one I will likely put to use myself sometime!
Have you read The Iliad? What are some storytelling lessons you’ve learned from studying classic literature? Let me know in the comments below!