Inspired by a new book by Adam Nicolson I have been re-reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. I am not qualified to judge when Homer was writing, my 1946 translations by EV Rieu put it at 750 BC, and a later amendment in 1976 at around 1000 BC; equally I am not in a position to say whether it is one voice, or like Isaiah, many voices. Adam Nicolson falls firmly into the one voice camp. Having re-read these epics, I am of a mind to agree with him. What The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters makes clear however, is that in The Iliad Homer is writing about Bronze Age Warriors.
Also, never having actually read these two back to back, naïvely I don’t think I had realised that they were a proto-War and Peace, a sort of Ur-document that has been followed since then by Tolstoy, Patrick O-Brien, Vassily Grossman and many others.
The Iliad is supposedly an historical account of a Greek and Trojan War, either remembered history or actual history it is hard to judge. Reading it, even in translation, using both EV Rieu and The Princeton University Annotated George Chapman, I have a feeling that it is a bit of both. Spurred on by the enthusiasm shown in The Mighty Dead for the foundation myths of the Trojan War, and for archaeological evidence that show that the descriptions of the warriors’ armour and accoutrements are undoubtedly Bronze Age, bearing in mind also that Homer would not have had access to these corroborating pieces of evidence, I am coming to the view that 1000 BC or even earlier must be the case. Does it really matter? What profoundly moved me, in any case was the intense drama, the emotion and the repetition – the detailed descriptions of the many and various death-dealing strokes of the sword, the piercing arrow and the hurling spear or javelin, and the ground-shaking thud of falling warriors.
Adam Nicolson tells us of his feelings when seeing archaeological finds anywhere in which there are collections of Bronze Age weaponry:
Anywhere you seek out Bronze Age weaponry, the same power gestures greet you from across the room: the seductive, limousine length of the blades, the oxidised green of the bronze, often now the colour of a mottled sea, the willow-leaf javelin points, the sheer length of the long swords with their golden hilts, the deep socketed spear heads, the socket running as far back along the shaft as the spear head protrudes beyond it, the metal occasionally still wrapped in oiled cloth to preserve it. […] These weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight of the pommel counteracting the weight of the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at a cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death throes. A sword is only any use if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight.
The Odyssey is pure fiction, brilliant and frustrating, seductive and astonishing. It simply tells the story of a man’s struggle to get home, to somewhere where he feels grounded and safe. Adam Nicolson adds to the weight of this epic the view that with this in his/her hand as a guide, the reader needs no other lexicon for the trials and successes of life. This is the proto-self-help book in his opinion, I am inclined to agree.
I assume that more people know the stories in The Odyssey than the stories in The Iliad, but the latter deserves a new reading, I have never had the George Chapman version before, but now I have I enjoyed the whole experience more. Chapman was using several Latin translations, and knew no Greek but it is the general view that he captured the spirit of Homer in his verse, through his unusual and imaginative use of English.
Adam Nicolson was brought up in the family home at Sissinghurst, he has written at least ten other books on a vast range of subjects. I first came across his writing when I read When God Spoke English, The Making of the King James Bible. I recommend this and several other titles.