Ring Composition

[In this handout, I use the actual line numbers from the Iliad: these are the numbers in brackets at the top of the page in Fagles' translation.]

The pattern known as ring composition is a formal device signaling closure which is typical of archaic Greek literature (and generally of oral and orally-influenced literatures). Closure is effected formally by repeating at the end a theme announced at the beginning. This formal repetition can be quite elaborate (see #1 below). It can also be either very restricted, as to a single speech (#1), or quite extensive, extending even to the entire work (#2).

1. Ring composition in restricted contexts

a. First example, a speech. Iliad 24.599-620 [=p. 608 Fagles]. Achilles' speech to Priam: The Niobe exemplum. Pattern = ABCDCBA.

b. Second example, a scene. Also from Book 24: the departure of Priam. Pattern = ABCDCBA

2. Some parallels between books 1 & 24 of the Iliad. [From C. W. MacLoed, Homer, Iliad Book XXIV (Cambridge, 1982).]

(a) Temporal parallels conjoined with parallels of theme.

24.31 = 1.493: The eleven days of Achilles' anger in Book 1 and the eleven days of the pro-Greek gods' resistance in Book 24 -- both of which lead to divine assemblies -- correspond. Likewise the nine days of the plague in Book 1 (53) and the nine days of lamentation for Hector in Book 24 (664, 784). The phrase for the appearance of dawn, "but when the young dwan showed again with her rosy fingers," is used only twice in the Iliad (20 times in the Odyssey), in 1.477 and 24.788, at the end of the events concerning two figures who have roused such damaging passions in Achilles, Chryseis and the dead Hector. Thus Books 1 and 24 with their long and analogous lapses of time frame the whole Iliad, whose main action occupies only three days.

(b) Zeus sends Thetis as his messenger to Achilles

At the end of Book 1 Thetis comes in secret to Zeus with Achilles' request and prevails on him to favor her son by giving the Trojans the upper hand in war. A divine assembly follows, begun by a speech of protest from an angry Hera, in which Zeus imposes his will; and a quarrel among the gods is averted by the thought that human beings are not worth such trouble. In Book 24 there is another divine assembly, also begun by a speech of protest, this time from Apollo: there Zeus brings the gods, including an angry Hera, to agree in showing concern for humanity, by letting Hector be buried; he then openly summons Thetis before them and sends her to Achilles; she persuades him to accept Zeus's will. Whereas in Book 1 the gods' exchanges are an almost comic equivalent to the grim quarrel on earth, and leave the strife among men and Zeus' destructive plan untouched, in Book 24 they are more serious and lead to a fresh decision by Zeus which brings a measure of reconciliation among men

(c) An old man comes to a Greek king as a suppliant.

In Book 1 the old Chryses comes as a suppliant to Agamemnon, bringing gifts and begging for the return of his daughter; Agamemnon turns him away harshly, with a threat of violence if Chryses should return; Chryses is afraid and yields. In Book 24 the old Priam comes as a suppliant to Achilles, bringing gifts and begging for the return of his son's body: Achilles accepts the supplication --though not before he has spoken harshly to Priam, and a frightened Priam has yielded to his threat. Finally he sends off the old man with a promise of an eleven-day treaty.

Some verbal parallels:

3. Larger Parallels in ring-form structure: