A reading guide can do one of two things: It can tell you what to think or it can teach you how to read.
This guide strives to do the latter. We aren't trying to convince you to think like us; we want to provide avenues of access to the story you are reading.
Our approach is driven by the belief that stories are natural to human beings and that, therefore, the best approach to story is to approach it like humans naturally approach stories. Stories are different from paintings and rocks and symphonies because they have characters who make decisions and the drama of a story revolves around those decisions.
Technical literary elements are wonderful things to learn because they can help a reader think about and interact with ideas a story-teller is developing. But they have to revolve around the core event of the story, which always remains the decisions and actions of the main characters.
A theme or motif or literary device can help the reader understand what the author is getting at. But considered in isolation, themes, motifs, and literary devices lose their meaning and purpose, and become mere fodder for academic exercise.
This reading guide is not interested in academic exercises.
It is interested in stories and the people who read them. If you read the story the way this reading guide shows you, you will become a better reader. You will find the stories more interesting too. And you’ll have plenty to contribute to a discussion about this story or any other story you might read. In fact, you’ll see how every story is part of a vast tapestry woven by every author who has ever told a story, some with greater influence than others, but all adding a valuable thread to the tapestry.
What then is the story?
Think of any story you have ever read or heard, no matter how short. You can include TV shows and movies. You probably notice that stories happen somewhere and at some time. You probably also notice that there are always characters in a story, and that at least one of the characters has some really big problem to deal with (he’s in love and the girl doesn’t notice him, the mountain is shaking and he’s about to be swallowed in an avalanche, he’s lost his wallet or his horse or his mind and needs it for something right now, etc.)
The urgency of a story comes from this need to act, but before the character can act he needs to make a decision. What are his options? What do you think he should do?
Take Achilleus, for instance. When you read The Iliad, you’ll have the privilege of reading about one of the most interesting characters in all the long history of stories. But it all starts, as Homer tells us in line one, with his rage. He’s so angry he could…
Well, we don’t want to spoil the story, but he could do some pretty awful things. But should he?
In book one, you’ll see how his leader, Agamemnon, the king of kings, insults him in a way that you and I can hardly imagine. In fact, when you first read it, you might think Achilleus is over-reacting. But that’s the whole point. That’s what we’re supposed to wonder. Is he over-reacting? The whole Iliad is about his anger and the pain that it caused (read the first 10 lines and you’ll see that Homer doesn’t wait to tell us about that anger and that pain). What do you think? What would you have done?
All 24 “books” ( think chapters) of the Iliad involve characters who have a key decision to make. If you want to read like you’ve never read before and enjoy a story more than you thought you were allowed to, plunge in to those decisions. Find characters that you like or dislike and argue with them.
But keep your mind open. As you read the Iliad using this guide, you will form your own opinions, and then you will test them. With each book you’ll be moving closer and closer to the heart of a very angry man, and you’ll also join a number of other characters who also have painfully difficult decisions to make -- the kind of decisions you often have to make yourself, though hopefully not often with so much at stake.
In the end, that is one of the best reasons to read Homer. Read him closely and he’ll give you a great gift: the ability to make better decisions.
Should you accept our invitation and read the Iliad? If you do, we who love Homer are happy to offer you clues to the pleasure of the story. Thank you for letting us play a small part in increasing your joy on the journey!
This guide is not intended as a detailed commentary on the Iliad, but there are many such resources available. In particular, we most heartily recommend Eva Brann’s Homeric Moments.