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What Hector Could Teach Rummy

In Defense of "Troy"

by CHLOE COCKBURN

Troy has gotten a lot of flak over the past few days. Much of the opposition to this film seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the purposes and mechanisms of the Iliad. It is unclear exactly how many critics have actually read Homer, but it seems clear that the number who have picked up the book since high school sits perilously close to zero. Yes, there are problems with the movie (the drabness of queen Helen, for one). But (perhaps despite itself), it gets a lot of things right.

For one thing, Brad Pitt makes a great Achilles. As a sex symbol and hero of Fight Club, Pitt is the right man to play the great lover/warrior of ancient lore. The Achilles of Homer was not ‘noble’ in any sense of the word as we currently define it. His character is petulant and childish, unwilling to yield to any authority other than his own glory. In Homer, when Agamemnon snatches away Briseis and refuses to honor Achilles, the mighty warrior goes down to the beach and cries to his mother. What would Rambo say?

There have been complaints about Achilles’ constant refrain that men must do great deeds so that their names will be remembered. Those familiar with the text of the Iliad will recognize this not as a screenwriter’s defect, but a rather good rendition of the Greek epic style. The Greeks idea of the afterlife involved a lot of shades moping about in Hades, a far throw from the fluffy clouds of our imaginations. So if you want any part of you to survive the mortal coil, it is rather essential to make sure that everyone remembers, and, crucially, speaks your name. Breath gives life and so on.

Given that the epic was originally sung over the span of several days in front of a hall of drunken chieftains, the endless repetition of key points is not surprising.. Music, not literature, is the paradigm with which to approach this <genre.Pop> music in particular is a good place to start. Once you look at it that way, the snobbish denunciations of Troy start to look a bit silly. In their haste to demand a more faithful rendition of the text of Homer, they have forgotten that the Iliad was not the product of one man’s labor, but rather the result of a long oral tradition whose chief aim was to entertain. Epic is not a highbrow genre.

What the critics do remember from English class is that Homer had gods, whereas divine squabblings are conspicuously absent from Peterson’s revival of the epic (I am thankful to have been spared an inevitably painful rendition of life on Olympus). The influence of the supernatural in Troy is left to be constructed by mortals, particularly Trojan mortals, who die by the thousands thanks to Priam’s chief soothsayer’s miscalculations of Apollo’s will. This seems to be a clear bid for the separation of church and state. When your best fighter (Hector) says, it’s not a good time to attack, perhaps you should pay heed. Rumsfeld and Bush beware.

There is a strong case to be made for seeing the gods as projections of human intention. In the Greek vision of the world, any time someone has an urge or idea, a god has put it there. A vestige of this concept survives in English, as the word ‘inspire’ means ‘to breathe in’, meaning, ‘to be taken hold of by the spirit of the god who compels an action’. A vision of the world without gods calls for personal responsibility for action, a welcome concept in a ‘they made me do it’ political climate.

In Troy, a great city falls at the hands of men, not gods. We see that even a noble army defending its homeland can lose against an invasion. And interestingly, while Agamemnon gets his comeuppance at the end of the film (a scene to make classicists cringe), Odysseus does not. Who is to blame for the mayhem? The king who ordered it, or the brilliant mind who found a way? Power does not work without instruments.

As any good translator knows, a literal interpretation is unlikely to succeed in viscerally affecting its audience. Peterson has made many changes to the story that critics have called significant. However, anyone with a thorough understanding of the Iliad can see that those changes have not destroyed the substance of the epic, but rather have preserved the story’s ability to communicate with a modern audience.

CHLOE COCKBURN lives in New York. She can be reached at: chloecockburn@yahoo.com