Just Finished Reading: The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson (FP: 2014) [251pp]
This was, as you might expect, an impulse buy. Although I know of (as does just about everyone in the West) the existence of the Illiad and the Odyssey I’ve never read either (although I have of late been dipping into an old – 1950 – translation of the Illiad) and the closest I’ve come to them so far is a few modern interpretations and the epic movie Troy which I honestly enjoyed a great deal. I’d heard that Homer might not be an actual person who wrote these iconic tales of western cannon but that he was, possibly, either a composite of several writers, a generic term for those who told the tales (prior to them finally being written down) or even the name of the first person to translate them from the spoken word to the written text. The author goes over each of these theories and shows on multiple occasions and in multiple ways just how far back in time – literally to the days before History – the tales go, teasing out individual word use, descriptions of weapons and armour and so on to show that the tale existed LONG before the age that finally immortalised it. But that was just the beginning.
I won’t even try to precis this book but will, instead, look at some of the themes the author covered. Naturally both tales are central to the books overall narrative but many questions need to be asked (apart from where they came from and did the Trojan War actually happen for real). When the Illiad is considered the first question that needs to be raised is ‘Which Illiad?’ Not only have there been, over the centuries since it was first written down, many, many translations of varying quality but there are multiple versions of the original text dating back far into antiquity. The Librarian’s at Alexandria tried to produce an ‘authorised’ version but were not wholly successful. Then there’s the question of just how it was possible to remember and ‘sing’ such a long and complex narrative – which naturally leads on to the many quirks and repartitions in the text that allow such a prodigious feat of memory to be achieved.
The thing that jumped out at me most however was not really about the text but about the war itself. Troy was a comparatively minor city – rich as it was – on the edge of an Asian empire. The Greeks, in contrast, were a rabble of squabbling tribes barely out of the Stone Age. Rather than the heroes of the piece, despite thousands of years of propaganda to back their case, they were in fact the bad guys – most literally the barbarians at the gate. That, of course, flips the whole narrative on its head. I wonder if there are books out there telling the siege of Troy as a tragedy from the Trojan point of view?
Coincidentally I have just finished a relatively recent updated narrative about the Trojan War told from the point of view of Patroclus, lover and friend of Achilles. As stated previously I dipped into the 1950 Penguin translation of the Illiad that I’ve had for years/decades and it looks very readable (and is, therefore, probably a rather ‘free’ translation!) so there’s more Homeric texts to come. It almost feels like Fate…. But if you’re a fan of two of the truly great classics of western literature this is definitely the book for you. Starting from an admittedly low base I definitely learnt a lot about the background to the stories and their ongoing importance in the western cannon. Most definitely more to come. Highly recommended.
Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014