Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Six Things You Can Learn About Writing from Homer

We like to think of the times we live in as new. We simply have to be
the most advanced, most interesting people in the history of the world,
right? When it comes to crafting stories, I’m not convinced.

Here’s an excerpt from The Odyssey. It’s the climax of the book.
Odysseus, having returned to his house, throws off his disguise and
kills the suitors. Watch how it plays out.

On this he aimed a deadly arrow at Antinous, who was about to take
up a two-handled gold cup to drink his wine and already had it in his
hands. He had no thought of death- who amongst all the revellers would
think that one man, however brave, would stand alone among so many and
kill him? The arrow struck Antinous in the throat, and the point went
clean through his neck, so that he fell over and the cup dropped from
his hand, while a thick stream of blood gushed from his nostrils. He
kicked the table from him and upset the things on it, so that the bread
and roasted meats were all soiled as they fell over on to the ground.
The suitors were in an uproar when they saw that a man had been hit;
they sprang in dismay one and all of them from their seats and looked
everywhere towards the walls, but there was neither shield nor spear,
and they rebuked Ulysses very angrily. “Stranger,” said they, “you shall
pay for shooting people in this way: you shall see no other contest;
you are a doomed man; he whom you have slain was the foremost youth in
Ithaca, and the vultures shall devour you for having killed him.”

Film that exactly as it is written and you have an action scene that would feel right at home in your favorite summer blockbuster. So, put aside your faith in the modern for a moment and let’s go to
school on some of the blind poet Homer’s best tricks.

1. Make it Visual.

My first quote is a great example of making it visual, but for more
evidence, see how Homer handles the part where Odysseus blinds the
Cyclopes.

When the wood, green though it was, was about to blaze, I drew it out
of the fire glowing with heat, and my men gathered round me, for heaven
had filled their hearts with courage. We drove the sharp end of the beam
into the monster’s eye, and bearing upon it with all my weight I kept
turning it round and round as though I were boring a hole in a ship’s
plank with an auger, which two men with a wheel and strap can keep on
turning as long as they choose. Even thus did we bore the red hot beam
into his eye, till the boiling blood bubbled all over it as we worked it
round and round, so that the steam from the burning eyeball scalded his
eyelids and eyebrows, and the roots of the eye sputtered in the fire. As
a blacksmith plunges an axe or hatchet into cold water to temper it- for
it is this that gives strength to the iron- and it makes a great hiss as
he does so, even thus did the Cyclops’ eye hiss round the beam of olive
wood, and his hideous yells made the cave ring again. We ran away in a
fright, but he plucked the beam all besmirched with gore from his eye,
and hurled it from him in a frenzy of rage and pain…

2. Give your Hero a Fatal Flaw.

Everybody knows that Achilles had a heel.
But that was a flaw beyond his control. The real flaw in his character was anger.

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought
countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying
down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures,
for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the
son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one
another.

In a similar way, Odysseus’ strengths are also his flaws. He’s too
clever. His pride and his curiosity (both of which combine to make him
such a cunning fighter) doom him to wander for 10 years on his way home
from the Trojan war. And get all of his men killed along the way. Seriously, it’s so bad, it’s one of the classic blunders.

  1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
  2. Never enter in against
    a Sicilian when death is on the line.
  3. Don’t ask Odysseus for a ride
    home from the war.

He just has to lash himself to the mast and hear what the
Sirens sound like. How about just staying away? Or using earplugs like
everybody else. But what dooms him is how he
handles the Cyclopes.

“We sailed hence, always in much distress, till we came to the land of
the lawless and inhuman Cyclopes.

A reasonable commander would say, “Men, that’s a savage land, home to
the lawless and inhuman Cyclopes. Steer clear of that island, for we are
bound for hearth and home.” What Odysseus said was, “Hunh, let’s go take a look.Seriously, when are we ever going to be here again?” Here’s the passage.

“‘Stay here, my brave fellows,’ said I, ‘all the rest of you, while I
go with my ship and exploit these people myself: I want to see if they
are uncivilized savages, or a hospitable and humane race.’

And for that, four of his men get eaten. But wait, it gets worse.

‘Do not,’ they exclaimed, ‘be mad enough to provoke this savage
creature further; he has thrown one rock at us already which drove us
back again to the mainland, and we made sure it had been the death of
us; if he had then heard any further sound of voices he would have
pounded our heads and our ship’s timbers into a jelly with the rugged
rocks he would have heaved at us, for he can throw them a long way.’

“But I would not listen to them, and shouted out to him in my rage,
‘Cyclops, if any one asks you who it was that put your eye out and
spoiled your beauty, say it was the valiant warrior Ulysses, son of
Laertes, who lives in Ithaca.’

He’s has to let the One-Eyed monster know who has bested him. It’s pride, pure, now-you’ve-done-it-to-yourself hubris.
Which dooms him because the Cyclops’ Dad is Poseidon. Poseidon gets so
angry that Odysseus has blinded his son that he decides he’s never
going to let him go home again.

3. Have Internal Conflicts.

The Iliad is nothing if not a source of internal conflicts. Achilles is
pissed at Agamemnon and refuses to fight. As a result of this spat the
Greeks are losing the war. So not only do you have Greek v. Trojan in this story, you also have Greek v. Greek.

In the middle of a battle Agamemnon has a stupid idea. He wants to put a
couple of ships in the sea, just in case things don’t work out. Here’s Odysseus again:

Odysseus looked fiercely at him and said, “Son of Atreus, what are you
talking about? Wretch, you should have commanded some other and baser
army, and not been ruler over us… I despise your judgement utterly for
what you have been saying. Would you, then, have us draw down our ships
into the water while the battle is raging, and thus play further into
the hands of the conquering Trojans? It would be ruin; the Achaeans will
not go on fighting when they see the ships being drawn into the water,
but will cease attacking and keep turning their eyes towards them; your
counsel, therefore, sir captain, would be our destruction.”

In other words, “Dumbass, if the men see something that looks like you
are running, they’ll stop fighting and this will turn into a rout.”

4. Have Unexpected Twists.

Diomedes is my favorite character in the Iliad for two reasons.

In book 10, he and Odysseus capture a Trojan named Dolon sneaking around
the camp in the middle of the night. The interrogate him and he is very
co-operative. In fact, he begins all his answers with “I will tell you
truly all.” Helpful prisoner, right?

Watch what Diomedes does.

Diomed looked sternly at him and answered, “Think not, Dolon, for all
the good information you have given us, that you shall escape now you
are in our hands, for if we ransom you or let you go, you will come
some second time to the ships of the Achaeans either as a spy or as an
open enemy, but if I kill you and an end of you, you will give no more
trouble.”

On this Dolon would have caught him by the beard to beseech him
further, but Diomed struck him in the middle of his neck with his sword
and cut through both sinews so that his head fell rolling in the dust
while he was yet speaking.

Totally uncalled for. Totally uncool. And not like any of the vicious, yet honorable combat that surrounds this incident.

In fact, Diomedes is so unpredictable, he attacks Aphrodite — love
incarnate — as she is trying to save her favorite Trojan, Aeneas.

at last after a long chase he caught her up, he flew at her and thrust
his spear into the flesh of her delicate hand. The point tore through
the ambrosial robe which the Graces had woven for her, and pierced the
skin between her wrist and the palm of her hand, so that the immortal
blood, or ichor, that flows in the veins of the blessed gods, came
pouring from the wound;

It’s so bad, Apollo has to step in to save Athena. Diomedes attacks him too.
“Yeah, you’re a God? Well today that’s not enough. What else you got?”

But Diomed sprang upon Aeneas, though he knew him to be in the very
arms of Apollo. Not one whit did he fear the mighty god, so set was
he on killing Aeneas and stripping him of his armour. Thrice did he
spring forward with might and main to slay him, and thrice did Apollo
beat back his gleaming shield. When he was coming on for the fourth
time, as though he were a god, Apollo shouted to him with an awful voice
and said, “Take heed, son of Tydeus, and draw off; think not to match
yourself against gods, for men that walk the earth cannot hold their own
with the immortals.”

5. Contrast Action with Profound Humanity.

There is a reason why the death of Hector breaks your heart. It’s
because Hector and his wife and child are the most fully human characters in literature
for thousands of years in either direction. And, that is why we care.

Theset up for this next excerpt is that Hector knows (prophecy) that he is
going to be killed fighting the Greeks. Here’s his wife, Andromache,
appeals to him to stay.

“Dear husband,” said she, “your valour will bring you to destruction;
think on your infant son, and on my hapless self who ere long shall be
your widow- for the Achaeans will set upon you in a body and kill you.
It would be better for me, should I lose you, to lie dead and buried,
for I shall have nothing left to comfort me when you are gone, save only
sorrow. I have neither father nor mother now… have mercy upon me; stay
here upon this wall; make not your child fatherless, and your wife a
widow;

And Hector gives one of the greatest speeches about honor and duty ever.

“Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I
look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward?
I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of
the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself.

But the speech is interrupted.

He stretched his arms towards his child, but the boy cried and nestled
in his nurse’s bosom, scared at the sight of his father’s armour, and at
the horse-hair plume that nodded fiercely from his helmet. His father
and mother laughed to see him, but Hector took the helmet from his head
and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling
child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the
while to Jove and to all the gods. “Jove,” he cried, “grant that this
my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not
less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius with his might. Then
may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than
the father.’

It is a scene of remarkable personal tenderness that is unlike anything
that came before it. And you really have to wait until the High Middle
Ages before anything that resembles it can be found in literature.

With this he laid the child again in the arms of his wife, who took
him to her own soft bosom, smiling through her tears. As her husband
watched her his heart yearned towards her and he caressed her fondly,
saying, “My own wife, do not take these things too bitterly to heart. No
one can hurry me down to Hades before my time, but if a man’s hour is
come, be he brave or be he coward, there is no escape for him when he
has once been born.

And then, he pays off the speech with brave action. Because, as we all
know from life and fiction, talk is cheap. Character is revealed by what
you do.

He took his plumed helmet from the ground, and his wife went back
again to her house, weeping bitterly and often looking back towards him.
When she reached her home she found her maidens within, and bade them
all join in her lament; so they mourned Hector in his own house though
he was yet alive, for they deemed that they should never see him return
safe from battle, and from the furious hands of the Achaeans.

6. Go ALL the Way.

The ending of the Iliad is truly a thing to wrack your soul. After a
brutal, exhausting war, the Trojans lose. They know their civilization is
about to be wiped from the Earth. So they have a huge funeral. They’re burying Hector, but it’s
everybody’s funeral.

She wept as she spoke and the vast crowd that was gathered round her
joined in her lament. Then King Priam spoke to them saying, “Bring wood,
O Trojans, to the city, and fear no cunning ambush of the Argives, for
Achilles when he dismissed me from the ships gave me his word that they
should not attack us until the morning of the twelfth day.”

Forthwith they yoked their oxen and mules and gathered together before
the city. Nine days long did they bring in great heaps of wood, and on
the morning of the tenth day with many tears they took brave Hector
forth, laid his dead body upon the summit of the pile, and set the fire
thereto. Then when the child of morning rosy-fingered dawn appeared on
the eleventh day, the people again assembled, round the pyre of mighty
Hector. When they were got together, they first quenched the fire with
wine wherever it was burning, and then his brothers and comrades with
many a bitter tear gathered his white bones, wrapped them in soft robes
of purple, and laid them in a golden urn, which they placed in a grave
and covered over with large stones set close together. Then they built a
barrow hurriedly over it keeping guard on every side lest the Achaeans
should attack them before they had finished. When they had heaped up the
barrow they went back again into the city, and being well assembled they
held high feast in the house of Priam their king.

It is the unhappiest of unhappy endings, yet it has an impossibly
elegiac beauty. Can you imagine a movie ending like this today? No way.
That’s one of the many reasons I write books.

And Many More

Of course, these aren’t the only things you can learn about
writing thrillers from reading Homer. In fact, they might
not even be the best things, but they are good and that’s
good enough for me. For my examples I used Samuel Butler’s
translation (’cause the text file is easily available online)
but if you want to dip into Homer I recommend Robert Fagles translations. They are both beautiful and a joy to read.



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