There’s a good chance that most people reading this had to read the "Odyssey" or "Beowulf" in high school. I can still hear people complaining about having to read the heavy books, and most people simply didn’t do it. I’m not here to get on a pedestal about reading, or anything else; what I am here for is to explain why those thousand year old stories should be, and are, relevant to us all.
It’s understandable that people feel out of touch with these epics. They were written at least a thousand years ago, in most cases more, their language is so archaic it can be almost unreadable, and many of the values of the authors, and the characters of the epics themselves are worlds different from ours today. To many, the classics such as the "Iliad" and the "Aeneid" are relics from another time, kept long after their expiration date by eggheads like myself. But of course it’s not as simple as that.
As a historical tool, classics like the "Iliad" are invaluable. In the case of many of the societies who created these epics -- like the early Greeks behind the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" or the Anglo-Saxons who wrote down the Viking adventure tale, "Beowulf" -- we know very little about how these people thought and felt, and how they viewed the world. Obviously, these are all fantastical adventure stories, but the values that the characters show reflect the world that brought them to life. The best example is "Beowulf," the character whose namesake is the first story ever to be written down in English. In the epic, the title character kills monster after monster before finally dying after going ten rounds with a fire breathing dragon. But the idea that comes through again and again in this story, is the Viking idea of wergild, of reputation that transcends death. What this tells us is that the Pagan Germanic peoples of the dark ages had a bleak view of death seeing it as futile, but that the way to immortality is through reputation.
But, again, a person could make the same arguments as before. They could argue that there’s no reason to care about the Anglo-Saxons, or the Vikings, or the Mycenaeans, or any other long dead civilization. This is why a person reading the classics needs to cut through the stilted language, through the page long similes, and the gory battle scenes, to the characters underneath. And in doing so, that person will realize that Achilles and Odysseus are really not that different than us.There is a moment in the "Iliad" where the warrior of Troy, Hector, is about to go out to battle and says goodbye to his wife and son. As he kisses his wife goodbye, his helmet frightens his son, making him cry, and making his parents laugh. In an epic about warfare and demigods, it’s a truly human moment. And this connection to the modern world goes beyond having empathy for the characters. "The Iliad,"
in particular, may help in dealing with modern mental illness.
In the 1994 book, "Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Drama and the Undoing of Character," author Jonathan Shay uses characters from the "Iliad," such as Achilles, to help Vietnam veterans come to terms with and cope with PTSD. Dr. Shay does this because he notices that Homer is one author who breaks down the symptoms of PTSD in a more tangible way. So the relevance of these epics can go beyond even standard literature.
Even though to a lot of people, stories like the "Odyssey" or "Beowulf" are irrelevant in 2016, to say that they can't be related to is not true. Beyond that, they can tell us something about how the people who wrote these stories, thought and felt, and what they wished for. By doing this, it can make us look at our own modern literature, and maybe ask the same thing.