While many stories from throughout history have played integral roles in shaping the ethical and moral compass of Western Civilization, it is difficult to argue that any have been more influential than The Iliad of Homer, one of the oldest extant examples of Epic Poetry that is easily accessible to us all. Naturally, the introduction to a story was as important to the Ancients as it is to we, the people of today. Indeed, Homer (as with all the prominent bards of history) knew that, in order to create a lasting and memorable story, it was integral to engage the audience, as well as give them something that was significant to them, something that they could relate to. I must say, he did a wonderful job.
“Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feast for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.”
-(Homer. Iliad. 1.1-6)
Aside from the opening crawl of a Star Wars film, the opening of The Iliad shines as one of the most notable examples of storytelling done right. By condensing the plot into a simple, short opening monologue, an Invocation of the Muse, as well as introducing the central focus of the poem, Achilles, Homer captures the interest of contemporary audiences, just as he captured the attention of ancient audiences millennia ago. In fact, at least in retrospect, it seems that many ancient authors intimately understood the art of introducing a story and gripping the audience, without giving away, or spoiling, too much of the plot.
Finally, in an effort to boil down the plot of The Iliad to a simple and easily digestible summary for the masses, all that is truly needed is a brief look at the opening of the poem, and perhaps a quick glance at the rest of Book 1…
To put it simply, Achilles is the key to the success of the Achaeans, or Greeks, in their decade long war against the Trojans. However, the king of the Achaeans, Agamemnon, does not see eye-to-eye with Achilles, and manages to tick off his greatest warrior at an inopportune time. This leads to many casualties being incurred by the Achaeans, and a chain of events is set off that will eventually culminate in the return of Achilles to the battlefield, as a result of a horrendous personal loss to Achilles.
While this summary is quite simple, and naturally leaves out the specifics of the poem, it is important to note that The Iliad of Homer is many things, and it is impossible to distill the essence of this poem into anything less than its full being. However, it is still worthwhile to attempt to bring this epic work to the attention of the masses, and that is a goal that I hope to continue to strive towards.
Homer, and Robert Fagles. The Iliad. Penguin, 1990.