Maureen ALDEN, Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the Iliad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. viii + 384. ISBN 0-19-815285-X.
Review by Michael Lloyd
This oddly-titled book does not, as it turns out, argue that Homer was deranged. Alden is actually convinced that the Iliad and the Odyssey are ‘highly integrated and carefully composed poems which can only be explained as the work of a brilliant and insightful poet carefully shaping and polishing his work over many years’ (pp. 12). The explanation of her title is that the Iliad contains ‘para-narratives’ which are ‘beside’ the primary narrative of the poem in the sense that they do not advance the plot but rather function as a kind of commentary on it. They include not only paradigms and digressions dealing with past events (e.g. Nestor’s reminiscences), but also subsidiary episodes from within the time of the main narrative such as the funeral games for Patroclus:
The para-narratives are the key to the interpretation of the main narrative (p. 16).
This distinction between primary narrative and para-narrative raises questions about the subject of the Iliad. Alden assumes that the wrath of Achilles story is the primary narrative, and argues that everything else in the poem is directly relevant to it. This seems to take an unduly narrow view of what the Iliad is about. The shield of Achilles in Book 18, for example, has often been seen as a microcosm of human life which places the horrors of the Trojan battlefield in a wider perspective. War may be important but it is not everything, and Homer keeps reminding us of what else there is in the world. Alden, by contrast, insists that the shield is a coded commentary on the behaviour of Achilles. The scene of the city at peace thus presents arbitration in a favourable light, and implicitly criticizes Achilles’ rejection of the embassy. The slaughtered cattle and flocks in the scene of the city at war represent the Greek troops killed by the Trojans in Achilles’ absence. These equivalences can seem strained, and Alden herself admits that there are scenes on the shield which resist this type of interpretation.
Alden tends to look for an exceptionally close and detailed relationship between paradigms and the situations to which they apply. Nestor describes in Book 1 how the Lapiths profited from his advice in their battle against the Centaurs. This story evidently explains why his advice should be accepted now, but Alden argues further that ‘Nestor implies that Agamemnon is like the Centaurs who get drunk and attempt to steal women’ (p. 81). It may seem simple-minded to object that Nestor conspicuously omits to mention the Centaurs’ drunkenness and woman-stealing, since mythological examples in Greek poetry can indeed have secondary and oblique meanings. More problematically, Nestor admonishes Agamemnon and Achilles in roughly equal measure, which he would hardly do if he thought that Agamemnon was a drunken rapist. In the paradigm, he gives advice to the Lapiths on how to defeat the Centaurs, and does not arbitrate between them as he does between Achilles and Agamemnon. He has not been paying attention if he thinks that Agamemnon took Briseis in an access of drunken lust, and Agamemnon could hardly be expected to respond so blandly to such a charge.
The next chapter deals with Diomedes, and explores the relevance to him of the paradigms of Tydeus, Lycurgus, and Bellerophon. Alden thinks that these stories illustrate the dangers both of the enmity and of the favour of the gods. She argues that he is punished for his attack on Ares and Aphrodite by being shot in the foot by Paris, the protégé of Aphrodite, and by the unhappy end of his life. In both respects he resembles Bellerophon, who was lamed when he was thrown from Pegasus and ended his life in misery when the gods withdrew their favour. The problem here is that the Iliad makes no mention of the laming of Bellerophon, and does very little to detract from the impression that Diomedes enjoys a brilliantly successful career. This is not to deny that his story contains a variety of hints at the limitations of even the greatest human success.
The last and longest chapter in the book deals with the paradigm of Meleager which Phoenix addresses to Achilles in the hope of persuading him to return to the battlefield. Alden focusses in particular on the ‘ascending scale of affection’ which Kakridis discerned in the Meleager story, that is ‘the series of requests from persons ever dearer to the recipient than the last’ (p. 180). She applies this scheme in some detail to both Achilles and Hector, contrasting Hector’s rejection of Priam’s pleas in Book 22 with Achilles’ acceptance of them in Book 24. It is perhaps paradoxical to fit Achilles’ acceptance of Priam’s supplication into the ascending scale of affection, since Priam is not actually his father.
This is a provocative and unorthodox book which contains much detailed and interesting discussion, and above all a sense of the abundant richness and subtlety of the first and greatest work of Western literature.