Michael Silk’s New Things about the Iliad

Iliad

Reading Michael Silk’s interpretation and critical analysis about Homer’s epic Iliad, I find that some points he actually emphasizes deserve to be given a considerable time to ponder on.  He starts his discussion about the epic by giving us the feel of the milieu of the ancient times, from which he first raises a significant observation that Homer is not made of a singular entity, but Homer is presented as a ‘multiple author’ with ‘different voices’.  One of the characteristics of an epic includes the fact that it came from oral tradition, and so Silk emphasizes in his analysis that because of this the oral transmission must have changed overtime, and when it was finally written down there might have been some changes. The oral-improvisory technique is possible for these alterations.

Another relevant remark that Silk lays out is the fact that Iliad is not a tight, organic structure in Aristotelian terms, or organically whole like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.  The actions do not follow a causal logic, but the epic is organized into a circular structure referred as ‘ringform’ – “it begins with a ransom and argument and ends with a comparable sequence in reverse” (the A-B-A shape).  It’s a full circle, sort of.  Also, there are sections in the narrative where there’s a tendency towards autonomy, that defiled the Aristotelian concept of ‘organic whole.’

The epic poem also embraces the structural technique which the critic calls as ‘illusionist’, where readers are given a kind of illusion of the length of time.  With regards to style, the poem employs extended simile, but the use of metaphor, according to Silk, is largely absent in the Iliad.

In terms of themes and heroic ideology, the character Achilles is presented as the embodiment of the ‘poet’s theme’, the warrior who fights for glory.  In a section that discusses about the character Achilles, Silk highlights that Achilles is the only character that can be considered as a ‘round’ character (with depth) in a modern sense.  Other characters are only defined through stock epithets and were differentiated in their own capabilities, but generally not considered as ‘men with multiplicity of traits and interest’, and therefore considered as static.  These characters show no capacity for development and are not affected by any subsequent experience. They are contrasted with the character of Achilles, which becomes the focus of interest in the poem mainly because even though there have been times when divine interventions affect him, there are also times when he had the chance to reveal himself – his true qualities without the external pressures (like war and divine intervention).

Silk observes that for all the battle scenes, heroic deaths and defeat, the epic poem’s emotional flavors are restrained due to the author’s style.  Homer wrote objectively, and so in terms of emotions, the readers may feel distant.  Homer’s characters does not expressed their feelings explicitly but conveys them either through the observations of other people or through detailed descriptions in things.  The latter can be associated with Eliot’s objective-correlative technique, which is a modern day concept.

Lastly, the critic states that the epic is primarily celebratory, not exploratory.  It presents to us the experience of certain types of people, and lacks the in-depth emotional exploration (with exception to Achilles) of some characters.  Silk likens reading the Iliad as watching sports, him (and the readers) as an spectator.

To further explore more about the Iliad, read Michael Silk, on The Iliad.

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