In recent times, Hollywood has sparked a renewed interest in the great epics of ancient Greece. May 14th of 2004 brought the release of Troy starring Brad Pitt. Before this, there were countless miniseries, movies, and TV shows, both accurately and inaccurately, depicting the mythological life of Homer's great epic heroes. Included among these was a wonderful NBC mini-series called The Odyssey, which, in fact, covered both of the poems of Homer to some extent. There is a great difference though, between the stories told today and the stories told in ancient times, even if both fall under the title of the Iliad or the Odyssey. This isn't surprising, given the enormous disparity between ancient audiences and modern day audiences and the fact that the current "Homers," the Spielbergs and the Raimis, use a very different medium from that of the ancient Homer. The great difference is the ultimate cause of action in the stories. While in the text of Homer, Sarpedon defines the heroic code as taking greater risks in order to win honor and undying fame, Hektor in Troy, defines his code as "Honor the gods, love your woman, and defend your country." When Homer sang to his ancient audiences, he sang of honor as being the ultimate cause of the great political maneuvers in the Trojan War and its aftermath but today, when one goes to see a depiction of the Iliad or the Odyssey it is love that serves as the key factor in said action.
The first instance that should be taken into consideration would be the Judgment of Paris. While never occurring in the text, Richmond Lattimore, in his brilliant translation of the Iliad, states quite plainly in the introduction, the proposition that "the ultimate cause of the Trojan War was the judgment of Paris." Where the text differs from most modern adaptations of the story is how this event leads to war, why Menelaus chooses to act. In the Iliad, Helen's seizure is completely viewed a matter of honor. Achilleus makes that clear when he shouts in Book One, to Agamemnon, that "for your sake, o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favor, you with the dog's eyes, to win your honor and Menelaus' from the Trojans."
In Troy, the ultimate cause of the war, while still the Judgment of Paris, is a matter of love, not honor. In the movie it is very apparent to the viewing audience that Helen is not abducted by Paris at all. Rather, she goes willingly with him, having fallen in love with him. Helen says to Paris, "I'm afraid of watching you sail away and never coming back." The audiences get a kick out of this. There is nothing the American public seems to enjoy more than a forbidden romance between star crossed lovers. In any case, Helen is miserable with Menelaus and does not love him. Therefore, she runs off with Paris. Instead of Paris slighting the honor of Menelaus, it is Helen's action in the name of love that incites the Trojan War. Hektor advises Paris to return Helen, but Paris merely replies, "I love her."
A second instance to explore also deals with the capture of a woman, since dishonor is often achieved through a woman connected with a Homeric hero. This instance is in Book One of the text, the story dealing with the seizure of Briseis, the concubine of Achilleus, by Agamemnon. In hoping to rebuild his honor after the loss of his own war bride, Agamemnon seizes Briseis, angrily asking Achilleus, "What do you want? To keep your own prize and have me sit here lacking one?" Although tempted to engage in combat with Agamemnon, Achilleus is advised by Athene to sit back and wait. He obeys, but nevertheless, his pride has been hurt and this leads to a profound consequence for the Greeks. The seizure of Achilleus' concubine by Agamemnon is the catalyst for the changing of the tide of battle because Achilleus withdraws due to a slight of his honor and asks his divine mother, Thetis, to get Zeus: "to help the Trojans, and pin the Achaians back against the ships and the water, dying, so that thus they may all have profit of their own king, that Atreus' son wide-ruling Agamemnon may recognize his madness, that he did no honor to the best of the Achaians." In other words, he wants Zeus to turn the tide of battle. This is going to have profound political impact, as illustrated later in the poem and therefore, it can be considered a political action.
The story changes somewhat in Troy. True, Achilleus has been dishonored by having his concubine stolen, but in the movie it is evident that the reason Achilleus withdraws is because he has fallen in love with her. In Homer, it is often interpreted that Achilleus is actually in love with Patroklos, his comrade in arms. Modern day, homophobic audiences would never approve of Brad Pitt having a romantic relationship with a man on screen, so Briseis is substituted as an emergency heterosexual relationship and thus once again, the film version of Homer's story plays to modern day audiences' values. Agamemnon certainly sees things that way. Upon encountering Briseis, he angrily growls, "I almost lost this war because of your little romance." In case there's any doubt about Achilleus' feelings, it should be noted that on his dying breath, he utters to Briseis, "You gave me peace in a lifetime of war."
Dishonor is not exclusively a matter of the bride stealing pattern. Another way to dishonor a hero, which is in some ways easier, is to usurp or question his power. Odysseus deals with this problem in abundance in the Odyssey when he returns home after his odyssey to find dozens of suitors seeking his wife and his property. The slight to Odysseus' honor has been identified and it will serve as a political catalyst. Odysseus kills all the suitors in his home when they devour his possessions. At first, this might seem more like a personal act than a political act, but in examining the individuals slaughtered by Odysseus and his son, one can determine that there is a massive political impact in the decision to massacre. In his introduction to the Odyssey, Richmond Lattimore discusses the significance of the grisly ending. Theorizing why Homer chose to end the song the way he did, Lattimore states that "it certainly demands some kind of patch-up of the chaotic situation in Ithaka, where ‘all the best young men' (i.245) are lying dead." The key phrase is "best young men." Odysseus has murdered the finest men of Ithaka. There is absolutely no way an action of this magnitude can escape having political consequences. Suppose Ithaka were to enter into another war? All of Odysseus' companions from Troy are dead. The men that might replace them have been murdered.
Difficult as it is to stomach, Odysseus' actions are not censored in modern adaptations of the story. In 1997, Francis Ford Coppola served as the executive producer for an NBC miniseries titled The Odyssey, starring Armand Assante as Odysseus and Greta Scacchi as Penelope. This movie emphasizes the mutual love of husband and wife from the very beginning, when Odysseus is shown standing by Penelope's side as she gives birth to their son Telemachos. Whereas the Odysseus for Homer's audience sleeps with Circe and Kalypso during his odyssey, Francis Ford Coppola's Odysseus is completely faithful to the wife that he loves, resisting temptation. When he returns home, seeing the suitors pursue his wife harms his emotional well being, not his honor. Troy also touches on this romance when Odysseus, desperate to persuade Achilles to join the battle, mentions that Penelope would feel safer with Odysseus going off to war if Achilles was at his side. This great concern for his wife's emotional well being seems absent in Homer.
Just as in Homer's time, when epic created an acute interest in the past, history is repeating itself. There is a new interest in the stories of Homer that has been brewing for the last decade. While it's true that the catalyst for political action in the epics of Homer has shifted from a slight to honor to emotional involvement because of the shifting values of the audiences, the purpose of Homer is still being fulfilled. Homer sang to entertain his audiences. Part of entertaining them was telling about the social norms they related to best. Since social norms have changed, it seems that the modern day tellers of Homer's epics are merely doing the same thing he did. They are simply attempting to reach their audiences through the norms which they are most familiar with. One might argue that this is keeping Homer's stories alive. For those of the American public who don't enjoy a good love story…well…there's always plenty of honor being discussed on Star Trek. The rest of us will enjoy Troy.
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