EXPERIENCING HEKTOR: Character in the Iliad

Lynn Kozak

Bloomsbury (2017) h/b 307pp £100 (ISBN 9781474245449)

K.’s intention in this book is to ‘explore how the Iliad constructs Hektor’s character through a serial analysis of the Iliad itself, with sub-sections determined by beats, sequence, or episode transitions as they are most relevant to Hektor’. After a short introduction (‘Binge-watching the Iliad’), which explains some of her critical terms, the meat of the book consists of a simple paraphrase of the poem’s action, which is treated overwhelmingly as a medium of character revelation.

A ‘beat’ is apparently ‘the smallest structural unit of serial television … usually less than two minutes long’. In a beat, something happens, as it might be a car chase. ‘The Iliad, like a television serial, consists of a long series of often very short beats.’ It soon becomes clear that it is in the world of box sets that K.’s critical locus is firmly set. Before we actually get to grips with Homer we are taken on a tour of the structure of shows like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Sherlock, How I Met Your Mother, and (above all) Game of Thrones—whose author she appreciatively quotes: ‘I’ve always been impressed by Homer … especially the fight between Achilles and Hector. Who is the hero and who is the villain?’

It is hard to see how anything illuminating about Homer can flow from all this, or indeed from K.’s Preface, which begins: ‘I started this project stuck on Hektor’s death. I couldn’t get over how it hung with me so much. I felt like I was always mourning Hektor.’ Later, when commenting on Hector’s refusal in Book 22 to heed his parents’ urgent advice not to face Achilles, she says: ‘Personally, I wish that Hektor would suck up his shame and get inside the city.’ If you persist in treating the Iliad as a kind of soap opera inhabited by people we are invited to think of as in some way ‘real’, and who persistently solicit our allegiance by way of ‘parasocial connection’, instead of as a serious and tragic examination of the human condition by way of a gripping story, this kind of guff will inevitably emerge. And on it goes. Just as a television series spawns its own accompanying website and comic books, so post-Homeric ‘fandom’ has produced endless different takes on the poems. Shorn of its rebarbative language and daft comparisons, there is admittedly something in this; but K. seems happily unaware of the history of Homer in antiquity. There is, for example, no entry for ‘scholiast’ or ‘Alexandria’ in the index.

Despite the length of her bibliography, Homer and the conventions of heroic epic often seem to have passed K. by. In her translations she sometimes renders personal epithets and sometimes simply leaves them out; and at 10.49 (Agamemnon to Menelaus) puts ‘loved by Zeus’ in quotation marks, as if the speaker can’t be expected to refer to Hektor like this. He is after all the bad guy. K.’s Greek is not altogether sound, either: prumnai (8.475) are not prows, and nemesis (13.122) does not mean ‘retribution’, especially when twinned with aidôs. More puzzling is the section that introduces the Iliad narrative, headed ‘In media res’. This could be a joke, where media = TV soap (and the next two paragraphs are indeed a detailed description of the opening sequence in Game of Thrones), but it’s not encouraging, to say the least.

K.’s book seeks to introduce students to Homer through their assumed familiarity with television series, but seems more likely to ensure that their attention remains anchored to the here-and-now. Its essential naivety will do nothing to expand the literary and historical sensibilities of anyone rash enough to shell out £100 for it. Bloomsbury have made a mistake in handing it the cachet of the company of William Allan and Irene de Jong. On the whole, most classicists think the Iliad is better than How I Met Your Mother.

Anthony Verity

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