Decline and Fall, and then Decline some more… Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey

by |February 27, 2010

With the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies western culture announced its intention to go headlong into decline. However, before this happens, before we reach the point-of-no-return, I thought it might be beneficial to glance back at the pages of history to see what, if anything, we might learn from the Ancient Writers, for whom the rise and fall of cultures was a near daily event.

I have called on the help of resident Booktopia classicist Dr Jonathon Cant PhD, ECG, BA, CD-ROM, MA.

Me: Dr Cant, thank you for taking the time to lead this expedition into the distant past.

Cant: It will be a pleasure… So, am I to understand you’ve read the classics?

Me: I’ve read Dickens, Bronte, Austen and Shakespeare.

Cant: Classics! Humph! Have you ever wondered where these…these…  interlopers  came by their ideas? Did you ever ask who these usurpers read for inspiration? No, no one ever does. Well, let me take you back a few thousand years, to the birth of time, where we will find the true classics, the great works of the classical authors.

Me: I’m in your hands…

Cant: When we thumb the pages of the works of the classical authors we will look into the very crucible of Western culture.

Me: (suppressed yawn) I don’t doubt it.

Cant: Now then… Homer!

Me: Doh!

Cant: Silly person… (cough) The Homer I speak of lived somewhere in the 8th & 7th centuries BC. My Homer, the true Homer was, without any doubt, the greatest of all the epic poets!

Me: Excuse my insolence, Herr Doktor.

Helen of Troy (Diane Kruger) from the film Troy (2004)

Cant: Ahem… The two works attributed to Homer are The Iliad and The Odyssey.

The Iliad chronicles the events of the Trojan War in which the Greeks attack Troy after the abduction/seduction of the Greek beauty, Helen, by the Trojan prince, Paris. It seems a paltry reason for launching a full-scale war but back then Greek beauties were hard to come by. Good Priam, King of Troy, his noble son Hector, his troublesome son Paris and Troy itself face annihilation. The fracas escalates further when the tempestuous Gods of Olympus take time out from their eternal in-house bickering to meddle in the affairs of men. Add to this the megalomaniac tendencies of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks and the colossal, and deserved, ego of his best warrior, the most excellent half-man/half-god, Achilles, and you have all the ingredients for one hell of a story.

Me: Now yer talkin’!

Cant: I’ve been talking for some time… Have I not?

Me: (frown) And it was all for a girl?

Cant: A girl? Helen was the most beautiful woman ever to have walked the earth! Of whom, a later writer would say:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?—
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.-
[He Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!—
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

Me: That’s from Shakespeare in Love.

Cant: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

Me: That’s what I meant.

Cant: To continue… The Odyssey, the second great work by Homer (Me: Doh! (softly)),  describes the adventures of Odysseus, who is returning home to Greece after the war. Poor Odysseus is tossed this way and that, forced to make long detours, and kept from reaching his goal, time and time again.

The Odyssey is a story which cannot be categorized in any meaningful way, it is amorphous. One may see it as a metaphor for life.

James Joyce in his Ulysses famously reduced the action of the entire story of The Odyssey to one day in the life of his Odysseus, Leopold Bloom. You would have like Joyce, he was a silly person like you.

Further, The Odyssey may be read as a Romance, for Penelope, Odysseus’ long suffering wife remains true to him even though she is besieged by a host of suitors who claim that Odysseus is dead. It can also be read as a comment on marriage –  Odysseus will do anything to delay returning to the marriage bed! (heh, heh, heh…)

But it has most commonly been read as a ‘boy’s own story’, with Odysseus as the Ancient World’s James Bond – ever beset by troubles, ever fighting his way out. To my mind, Odysseus is a super hero for all ages.

Me: Awesome!

Cant: You know, The Odyssey is regarded as the sequel to The Iliad, which is the way prefer to think of it but should you wish, The Odyssey can be read as a stand-alone work.

Me: Dr Cant, thank you for talking with us today.

Cant: What? Is that all you wanted from me? Well, you’ve gone and made me miss my bus for nothing. Silly person.

Me: Shall we continue our tour of the Ancient world next week?

Cant: Humph! (clump, clump, clump… slam!)

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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