The Iliad Book 1 Summary and Analysis
Table of Contents
The Iliad consists of twenty-four books, dealing with the battle of Troy. Homer abruptly dashes off into the action of the story. Nine years have already passed, and the result of the battle is undecided. Homer assumes that his readers are acquainted with the main drift of the story. Troy is a besieged city, and the people inside are in a state of terror.
The Iliad Book 1 Summary
Book one of The Iliad begins with an invocation to the Muse- “Sing, heavenly muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son.” In Greek ‘wrath’ is ‘menin’, and that is the first word in the epic, which strikes the keynote. Agamemnon and Achilles, the two great heroes, are extremely jealous of each other, although they are fighting for a common cause, namely the recovery of Helen from Troy.
The quarrel between the two heroes is about a beautiful woman, who has been taken captive in the recent battle. But Apollo and Diana are extremely angry, and a terrible pestilence begins to rage in the Greek camps. In their dire distress the Greeks appeal to their Soothsayer Calchas to ascertain the cause of the anger of Apollo and Diana. Calchas says that he can account for the divine displeasure. He, however, hesitates, let the revelation might anger the offender. Achilles offers him protection and asks him to reveal the truth. Calchas, thus assured, says that the gods are displeased with Agamemnon, the chief of the Greeks. For in a recent raid he has taken for himself a maiden named Chryseis, the daughter of Chyses, the priest of Apollo.
Chryses has offered Agamemnon, a handsome ransom, but to no purpose. He has, therefore, appealed to Apollo, and the god has sent the Pestilence, which, however, will stop as soon as the maiden is returned to the father. Achilles gets a splendid opportunity to give vent to his feelings, and demands the restitution of the girl. Agamemnon, though very much indignant promises to return we girl only on one condition that he must have the girl, Briseis, who was given to Achilles. The wrath of Achilles knows no bounds.
He calls Agamemnon a shameless creature, who has all along enjoyed the lion’s share of the body. He decides to go back home, Agamemnon, however, refuses to budge and inch, and insists having Briseis. He even suggests that Achilles may go wherever he likes. Achilles, deeply humiliated, is on the point of drawing his spear, when Pallas Athene intervenes and prevents the strife
Visible only to Achilles, Athene pacifies hero and assures him that he will be revenged in due course. Agamemnon and Achilles look sullen, when Nestor, universally respected for his age and wisdom, gently rebukes them both and says that the enemy will rejoice at their dispute.
Achilles leaves the council in savage silence, accompanied by his friend Patroclus. Agamemnon sends back Chryseis to her father with presents. The gods are appeared, and the pestilence also comes to an end. Not a person to let things lying down, Agamemnon asks two messengers- Eurybates and Talthybius to bring Briseis from the tent of Achilles. Since messengers enjoy special sanctity, they are received quite cordially.
Agamemnon, dressed in brief little authority, has gone so far as to direct the messengers to tell Achilles that if he does not send the girl, he will go there himself to take her by force. That part of the message, however, is not necessary, as Achilles requests Patroclus to bring Briseis and place her in their custody. But very quietly he murmurs his oath that he will not extend his helping hand to Agamemnon in his hour of need.
Briseis leaves Achilles with tearful eyes, for she has found in him a loving lord. When left alone, Achilles sheds bitter tears at his own humiliation. He feels dishonoured, and, therefore, with child-like petulance and helplessness he cries to his mother, Thetis, who is none other than a goddess. She comes to her son, soothes him with tender solicitude, and wants to know why he is so distraught. He tells the story of his indignity. She caresses and assures him that she will take up the matter with Jupiter, and request him to grant the Trojans a victory for a short while, so that the Greeks may realize their folly and appreciate how indispensable Achilles is.
Thetis goes to Jupiter and appeals to him on her son’s behalf. Jupiter, always indulgent, readily grants her prayer. He however knows full well that his wife, Juno, a warm advocate the Greeks, will create difficulties. And she actually does, Jupiter, a stern ruler that he is, asks her to be silent. Vulcan, the son of Jupiter and Juno intercedes, and tells Juno that there is no point in disturbing the peace of Olympus for one or two individuals on earth. He then serves drinks to the Olympians, and the cloud of domestic quarrel is lifted.
The Iliad Book 1 Analysis
Homer strikes the keynote of the epic in the first sentence. The Satire action revolves round the ‘wrath’ of Achilles, the greatest hero of Greece. Homer brings the epic to a close when Achilles’ wrath is appeared.
The quarrel between the hero and the king over a woman does not appear dignified. We shall, however, remember that it was the heroic age, when finer sensibilities and sentiments were yet to be developed. Both Agamemnon and Achilles suffer from the chastisement of Hubris, i.e. inordinate pride and egotism. They feel that their honour is at stake; and they must pay any price to vindicate their honour. The heroes of that age set their life at pin’s fee, and preferred death to ignominy and dishonour.
Yet they had reverence for authority. That is why Achilles with all his fierce pride and impetuosity hesitated before hurling the spear at the king, who is the cause of his dishonour.
Book one throws light on some of the Greek heroes in general and Achilles in particular. Achilles is fierce, he is savage; he is no respecter of persons. And he knows that he towers head and shoulders above his compeers. That is why he offers protection to Calchas, the soothsayer and tells him that he can freely speak his mind. He flares up and is about to strike the King.
As the messengers come to Achilles’ tent to take away Briseis at Agamemnon’s behest, he behaves in a friendly manner. The tender side of the hero’s character is further revealed as the maiden leaves him. Briseis is only a spoil of war, and yet she goes away reluctantly, for she has found in Achilles a generous master Achilles weeps, but not for the loss of a woman, but the loss of honour. A typical product of the heroic age, Achilles does not know how to hide his feelings. In this respect he is quite unsophisticated. Before his mother he is an utterly helpless child. And the mother, therefore, caresses and consoles the aching heart of her son who has suffered indignity.
The Olympian gods and goddesses are not like Tennyson’s gods, “careless of mankind”. They are vitally interested in the affairs of the mortals, and often intervene and even wirepull them. Pallas Athene comes, invisible, to Achilles and prevents a strife. That is appels to Jupiter to avenge the indignity hurled upon her son. Book One introduces us to the Olympian court and household.
The gods and goddesses are anthropomorphic; they have all the traits and even the vices of the mortals. They are fond of sensual pleasures, Jupiter’s love-affairs can form an epic. They are voracious eaters, and are addicted to drinks. They love music, and there are gods to entertain them. In certain respects they appear less heroic and noble than the mortals, of whose destiny they were the arbiters. They are passionate, and often vulgar, and to even very god-fearing people, their conduct is at times reprehensible.