The night that pulled them through: When you read The Iliad, you’re reading some of the world’s oldest recorded stories—and some of the most elemental.
Novelists still revise and tinker with those first recorded stories. But The Iliad tells them in simplest form. Homer got there first.
In the past week, we’ve been thinking again about “the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through.” It occurs in Book 9 of The Iliad, as it begins to appear that the Achaeans will have to abandon their plan to avenge the theft of Helen by taking Troy.
Their leader, lord of men Agamemnon, decides to sail home, defeated. Headstrong young Diomedes rises to say that he will stay and continue the fight alone.
The group is coming apart at the seams. Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, rises to offer advice. (“From the early days his plans and tactics always seemed the best.”)
In Professor Fagles’ 1990 translation, these events follow Diomedes’ speech. Nestor scrambles to his feet to urge a wiser course:
THE ILIAD: All the Achaeans shouted their assent,Nestor is warning Diomedes and his allies—nothing good is going to come from a split within the clan. Moments later, he even says this:
stirred by the stallion-breaking Diomedes' challenge.
But Nestor the old driver rose and spoke at once.
“Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.
How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.
But it's my turn now, Diomedes.
I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
And no one will heap contempt on what I say,
not even mighty Agamemnon. Lost to the clan,
lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one
who lusts for the horror of war with his own people.”
“Tonight's the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through.”
Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones conducted an ancient discussion last week. For our money, Clinton’s position made more sense, on balance. But in the end, that’s not the point.
We’ve been thinking about Book 9 all week, with a possible sense of foreboding. That was a dangerous evening back then. Homer recorded it first.