Friday, July 27, 2012

The Great Gathering of Armies - Book 2 - Odysseus the great tactician

Previous BooksThe Rage of Achilles - Book 1

At the end of the first book we saw that Zeus had decided to cause destruction in the Greek army for the sake of Achilles. Now he sets out to do it and how he does it shows us another facet of him. Zeus could have simply given a sign/portent that Greeks would win and fooled Agamemnon. But no, Zeus is not brawn alone, he is as cunning and devious as he is strong, a potent mixture of brawn and brain.  So

"he would send a murderous dream to Agamemnon.Calling out to the vision, Zeus winged it on:"Go, murderous Dream, to the fast Achaean shipsand once you reach Agamemnon's shelter rouse him,order him, word-for-word, exactly as I command."

Here you see the beauty of the idea whereby dream becomes more than an abstract concept, it is treated like an tangible, almost physical entity to whom Zeus speaking to. The dream is also devious, it takes the form of 'Nestor' who is the person trusted most by Agamemnon and informs him as Zeus has instructed it to.  Agamemnon is pleased with the dream, but he tries to be too cute for his own good. He wants to find out who among the Greeks are truly committed to the task and so tells the soldiers that they can leave for Greece they Troy cannot be taken. What happens? The Greeks who have been fighting for 9 years here, having almost forgotten the faces of their wives, children are only too ready to leave. A mass exodus beginning with them scrambling to get to their ships and start leaving.

'Hera' sees it and wants it to be stopped. (Isn't she the person who set in motion the sequence of events that led to this war). She hates Troy and wants it destroyed. 'Odysseus' is given the task of preventing them from leaving, Odysseus who is always referred to as the 'great tactician'. (Achilles on the other hand is 'the most violent one''). If Zeus were to be split into 2 individuals it would be as Achilles and Odysseus, one with the strength and power of Zeus and the other with all the cunning and deviousness of Zeus. We understand why Odysseus is so highly regarded as he manages to stop the Greeks, with a mixture of both persuasion and ordering, depending on who he is addressing. When he addresses a fleeing king it is as 

"My friend - it's wrong to threaten you like a coward,but you stand fast, you keep your men in check!"

But when he comes across a fleeing soldier

"You fool - sit still! Obey the commands of others,your superiors - you deserter, rank coward,"

Whereas kings are treated with deference, soldiers are bullied into staying. The armies are gathered back and here for the first time in the poem we hear the opinion of a soldier, the person in the forefront of the brutal war. So far we have heard only the kings and gods discussing, not the soldiers. 'Thersites' a soldier still doesn't want to stay and from him we hear the sufferings the soldiers have undergone and their resentment. He abuses Agamemnon saying
"....What are you panting after now?Your shelters packedwith the lion's share of bronze, plenty of women too,....How shameful for you, the high and mighty commander,to the lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter"

Odysseus now goes to the next stage of persuading.(Remember the Sama/Bedha/Thanda methods of persuasion?) Seeing that Thersites could incite a revolt again, he abuses and thrashes him in front of everyone.

"And he cracked the scepter across his back and shoulders.The rascal doubled over, tearing streaking his faceand a bloody welt bulged up between his blades,under the stroke of the golden scepter's studs"

It may seem inhuman today, but isn't this what armies do even today, when someone wants to leave it during the war. Once you commit to the war there are just 2 possibilities, either you come out of alive or you die in the battle field. You cannot retreat on your own unless your commander tells you too. Then Odysseus  gives a final speech which turns the tide in his favor and the armies get ready once again to fight. It is beautiful mix of addressing the concerns of the soldiers, even sympathizing with them on one hand and boosting the confidence so that they would fight again, on the other. He tells of the sufferings of the soldiers

"Any fighter, cut off from his wife for one month,would chafe at the benches, moaning in his ship,...A month-but look at us.This is the ninth year come round, the ninthwe've hung one here. Who could blame the Achaeans for chaffing, bridling beside the beaked ships"

Then he moves on to a portent that appeared at the beginning of the war. He recounts it and tells them that victory would be theirs.

"As the snake devoured the sparrow with her brood,eight and the mother made the ninth, she'd borned them all,so we will fight in Troy that many years and then,then in the tenth we'll take her broad streets."

This speech seals it , the armies are now fired up with the prospect of impending victory and are ready to fight. Odysseus  has tactfully achieved what was entrusted to him, the man could be a study of management principles to get the job done, whatever it entails (much like Krishna who also finally gets what he wants?). We also get the first reference to 'Helen', the person at the center of the entire conflict

"So now let no man hurry to sail for home, not yet....not till he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife,payment in full for the groans and shocks of warwe have all borne for Helen"

It is still not said what exactly happened, this line is the first indication that conflict is due to Helen but doesn't say why. This could be an indication of the oral tradition where the earlier events are recounted in an earlier poem. Another thing to be noticed is the reference to the bedding of a 'faithful Trojan wife'.  It shows that Women as usual are the ones most affected by the conflicts, that the mindset of marauding armies do not ever change, haven't changed over thousands of years, whether it be the 'Classical' Greeks, the liberating Nazis/Russians, or the the peace-keeping 'Indian'/Sri Lankan' armies. Whatever the time period, whatever the army they behave in pretty much the same way, women bearing the brunt of their brutality. These little insights into an ancient world is one of the most important things about this poem in addition to its terrible beauty. It is easy to miss them, being so caught up in the events of the war but they offer valuable information of how people lived, their mindsets etc.

The remaining book is pretty much an inventory of the armies that have gathered. It's too long to recount here and as Homer himself says

"Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things -all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing -who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?The mass of troops I could never tally, never name,not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths,a tireless voice and the heart inside me bronze,never unless you Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeuswhose shield is rolling thunder, sing, sing in memoryall who gathered under Troy. Now I can only tellthe lords of the ships, the ships in all their numbers!"

What an evocative piece that tells the immensity of the armies without telling anything at all.After the Greeks, the Trojan armies are explained. We get our first look of Hector

"First, tall Hector with helmet flashing, led the Trojans-Priam's son and in his command by far the greatest, bravest army,.."

 While reading this stanza and the remaining ones detailing the army my mind flashed back to the 'Mahabharatha'. I thought about 'Sanjaya' (the first live commentator) explaining the armies gathered at Kurukshetra to the blind king 'Dhritarashtra'. Being from India, my mind keeps going back to Mahabharatha at several books during the poem seeing flashes of relation, points of concurrence between the two. So the armies have gathered, ready to do battle again. What next?

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