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Writing Battle Deaths

There is a thing about Homer’s verse that really leaps out at you in Book V of The Illiad. He can write excellent graphic descriptions of fighting. His description of the killing wounds, of the usage of chariots, and the taking of prizes are exceptional.

Today I’d like to look at some of my favorite examples from Book V. I’m traveling today, a ten to twelve hour drive, so there isn’t time for a more complex analysis. I’ll be back next Saturday to discuss my favorite character in the poem, at least after five books, and why they have that honor.

The line that brought home how well Homer’s violence was composed is this description of the death of Phereclus.

Meriones caught him quickly, running him down hard
and speared him low in the right buttock — the point
pounding under the pelvis, jabbed and pierced the bladder —
he dropped to his knees, screaming, death swirling round him.

Book V lines 72–75

It was not the first such description though. The earliest is simple, but hints at what was to come.

hitting Phegeus’ chest between the nipple it pinched him out
behind his team.

Book V, lines 20–21

Homer is creative with the ways spears are used to end men’s lives.

the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders,
gouging his flesh and jutting out through his ribs —
he fell with a crash, his armor rang against him.

Book V, lines 45–47

While most of the deaths are from bronze spears, this sword cut is remarkable and unlike over ninety percent of those in modern fantasy literature.

chasing Hypsenor fleeing on before him.
failed with a sword, slashed the Trojan’s shoulder
and looped away the massive bulk of Hypsenor’s arm…
the bloody arm dropped to the earth, and red death
came plunging down his eyes, and the strong force of fate.

Book V, lines 88–92

While there are repeating motifs in Homer’s work, phrases repeated for emphasis, this does not seem to appear in the descriptions of fighting. The closest I have found are these two very brutal descriptions of the deaths of Pedaeus and Pandarus respectively.

the famous spearman struck behind his skull,
just at the neck-cord, the razor spear slicing
straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue —
he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze.

Book V, lines 80–83

With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes—
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripped out beneath his chin.

Book V, lines 320-325

You will remember the archer Pandarus being tempted by Athena to break the truce. His death was done by Diomedes, inspired to battle rage by the same goddess.

That is just a sample of Homer’s descriptive violence. If you write historical fiction or fantasy and want to upgrade your descriptions of fighting, do yourself a favor and read a good poetic translation of The Illiad if you haven’t already. I know it is improving my writing. I think it will improve yours.

This is part 2 of a series on The Illiad, itself the beginning of my reflections on reading the St. Johns College undergraduate reading list. All quotes and references to the text are from the Robert Fagles translation published by Penguin Books.

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