Experiencing Hektor: Character in the Iliad by Lynn Kozak
In considering the narrative properties of the Iliad, scholars have often used the novel and its practices for comparison. In her lively exploration of the Iliad's techniques of characterization, Lynn Kozak instead uses serial television as a comparandum, arguing that, as a "non-literate" form that puts significant demands on audience memory and engagement, the Iliad is more like a television series than a novel. She points out that, like television series such as Breaking Bad or Lost, the Iliad is a single long story with a beginning, middle, and end, but is performed and experienced episodically, in smaller pieces, like "the aristeia of Diomedes" or "the ransoming of Hektor." Listening to the Iliad is thus similar to binge-watching a television serial, as both require a significant commitment of time—around 15–25 hours or so for the Iliad by Kozak's estimation—punctuated by fairly frequent breaks, which she estimates occur at least every 90 minutes. Whether ancient performance of Homer included as many breaks as Kozak imagines may not really matter, though very infrequent breaks in actual performance time (perhaps only after every eight books) would make the comparison significantly less compelling. Kozak counters this potential objection by pointing to places in the Iliad's narrative that are particularly suitable for a break, often followed by a recap of some part of the action; these, she argues, function similarly to partial recaps of previous episodes in serial television. The length of individual Greek dramas helps her case, suggesting ancient audiences appreciated significant pauses in performance time approximately as often as Kozak estimates for Homer.
Kozak persuades that the analogy is fruitful if not perfect. In particular, in analyzing how successful television series use certain techniques of characterization to hook audiences, she shows how the Iliad's similar practices create a gripping character in Hektor. Using Murray Smith's model of film character engagement and comparisons to television series, she discusses how both the Iliad and serial television encourage an audience first to "recognize" characters, then to "align" with some of them, and finally to experience strong "allegiances." Like successful serial television, the Iliad is particularly effective at creating ever-shifting alignments with a broad range of characters and complex allegiances to certain ones, particularly to Hektor.
Kozak's presentation of examples is extremely lucid. Even though I am unfamiliar with most of the series she uses to illustrate her points, I was able to understand her analogies easily and found many of them stimulating. For example, her comparison of the many minor warriors introduced in the Iliad only to die in battle to the "red-shirts" of Star Trek, characters introduced briefly only to die in the same episode, gave me a new way of thinking about this familiar feature of the poem. Such comparisons may also be helpful in the classroom in illustrating how the Iliad engages interest in character to students who may know and understand serial television better than literature.
Early in the book, Kozak confesses that she finds the Iliad and serial television equally addictive, and her obvious enthusiasm charms and engages. She also shows considerable knowledge of both, citing examples from many popular series and analyzing the entire Iliad beat by beat (a term borrowed from theorist Michael Newman, loosely equivalent to a scene. For the distinction, see 6–7). [End Page 148] Admittedly, I found the earlier part of the book, where she lays out the case for the analogy and defines her terms, more consistently interesting than the detailed analysis of the Iliad that follows. Nonetheless, the careful analysis demonstrates the value of her approach. This part of the book may be better digested in small pieces by those teaching, or writing about, individual parts of the poem.
Kozak's writing is delightfully clear, though characterized more by enthusiasm than elegance. The old-fashioned philologist in me did cringe at a couple of lapses ("it peaks interest," 35; "in medium res," 43) that will support curmudgeonly suspicions that watching a lot of TV erodes traditional forms of literacy. A good copy editor could have prevented these minor errors from marring what is generally an enjoyable venture into a new way of looking at this very old poem.