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The Turning Post and the Finish Line: False Boundaries in the Iliad

Bill Beck

The Iliad surpasses its proposed limits yet falls short of our initial expectations.  As critics have long noticed, the Iliad consistently establishes boundaries, of both space and narrative, only to disrupt, surpass, or subvert them.  The embassy to Achilles, for example, seems to provide Achilles the honor that he demands – the honor Athena had promised him from the beginning of Book 1 (1.213), but Achilles remains unsatisfied and his wrath continues.  The Meleager paradigm poses Patroclus’ intervention as the next possible end-point, but Patroclus’ intervention only complicates the plot and prolongs the poem.  After Patroclus’ death, the death of Hector is set up as yet another potential point of resolution; but Hector’s death satisfies neither Achilles nor the poem.  The Iliad, in other words, tends to strip end-points of their terminal status.

In this paper I argue that the Iliad links spatial boundaries with narrative end-points, and that spatial boundaries operate in the same (problematic) way that narrative boundaries do.  In particular, I focus on the turning-post in Book 23 as a prominent spatial end-point that is representative of narrative boundaries in the Iliad.  I argue that the poet focuses our attention almost exclusively on the turning-post (τέρμα), as though it were, in fact, equivalent with the end of the race.  In the subsequent narrative of the race, however, the poet elides the turning-post entirely.  The turning-post even seems to disappear at the very moment the drivers draw close to it; the poet makes no mention of it in his description, and the spectators lose sight of it right when it becomes the focal point for the race.  Like a reader of the narrative end-points in the Iliad, Nestor here conflates the turning-post with the finish line.  Boundaries in the Iliad (of both space and plot) have a tendency to be functionally erased the moment they are reached or attained.  Like the turning-post that receives greater symbolic emphasis than the course of the race seems to merit – a definitive middle-point (νύσσα) that is consistently cast as an end-point (τέρμα) – narrative boundaries in the Iliad tend to receive the emphasis of end-points only to disappear once the narrative reaches them.  We believe the poem races to its resolution when, in fact, we are only in the middle of the course.

The connection I establish between spatial boundaries and narrative boundaries helps to resolve centuries of critical discomfort with the chariot race in Book 23.  The scholia betray a difficulty in visualizing the scene, and several modern scholars (Leaf 1902; Ameis-Hentze 1913; Mühll 1976) have tried to manipulate the text to resolve apparent inconsistencies.  Why do the spectators temporarily lose sight of the competitors?  Why is there such confusion as the chariots make their turn?  As I argue, the problems of visualization are in fact consistent with the point I make throughout the paper: boundaries of both space and narrative become least definitive the moment the character or reader arrives at them.

My paper draws in particular on recent narratological and spatial studies of the Iliad.  Purves (2010), Clay (2011), and Tsagalis (2012) are particularly useful for their analyses of how the poet deploys space consistently and systematically throughout the poem, and I draw especially on Heiden’s (2008) and Rabel’s (1997) work on the structure of the Iliad’s plot.

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Charioteering and Footracing in the Greek Imaginary

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