I wish I’d read this intriguing book before I picked up the Iliad for a re-read last year (lucky for me, I have the Odyssey still to go on my Classics Club list). Adam Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters* (published in the UK as The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) is difficult to classify, genre-wise; it is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part history, part ethnography, part memoir. It’s beautifully written, for Mr. Nicolson deeply cares about his subject and its place in civilization:
This is also a book about epic poetry, and about the value of epic in our lives. Epic is not an act of memory, not merely the account of what people are able to recall, since human memory only lasts three generations [. . .] Nor is it a kind of history, an objective laying out of what occurred in a past to which have little or no access. Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: it is an attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now. (3)
The foundational belief of the book is that “Homerity is humanity” (31). Its specific premise is its author’s belief that Homer arises out of a meeting of two cultures: nomadic steppe warriors from north of the Black Sea, and city-based, literate, hierarchical Mediterranean societies. In Mr. Nicolson’s formulation, this clash or melding of worlds occurred around 2000 B.C.; for him, then, Homer’s origins are about a thousand years older than those ascribed to the poems by modern scholarship.
It’s a fascinating idea, but what matters more than its veracity is the way in which Mr. Nicolson illustrates his arguments. His travel has been extensive, and his descriptions of what he sees, at home and abroad, are full of evocative detail. In a bay in Scotland, for instance, “the seawater itself is green with the reflected woods, an ink of molten leaves and boughs” (36).
While I’d say the book leans more toward discussion of the Iliad, Mr. Nicolson, a keen sailor, is just as interested in the Odyssey. Here’s how he describes the relation of the two poems:
The Iliad is soaked in retrospect. The Odyssey, the twin and pair of it, is filled with heroic adventurism and the sense of possibility, as if it were an American poem and the Iliad its European counterpart. [. . .] where the Iliad is a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and the past, of each of us being locked inside a set of destinies, the Odyssey, for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offer of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given, for the individual—or at least the great individual—to stand out against fate. (64)
Put another way, “the Homeric condition” is “the Odyssean promise of delight enclosed within the Iliadic certainty of death” (71).
This book is steeped not only in knowledge of the ancient past, but in the more recent literary canon. Take, for example, Mr. Nicolson’s exploration of how the mines in southern Spain might relate to the poem; his description of the “toxic spoil” of the landscape (132) is chilling, filled with images and sounds and tactile effects. It is a portrait of Homer’s Hades:
There is a sense of transgression at Chinflón, a feeling that the this place was once alive and that the miners hacked at its life, as if they were hunting it, digging out its goodness, a form of rough and intemperate grasping, the masculine dragging of value from a subterranean womb. (134)
Consciously or not, I think Mr. Nicolson is channeling the description of another kind of Hell: one that belongs to Mammon and the other demons in Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for ev’n in heav’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’ns pavement, trod’n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of their mother Earth
For Treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig’d out ribs of Gold. (PL I.678-90, emphasis mine)
It’s this kind of engagement, with both landscape and literature, that makes Why Homer Matters so endlessly interesting.
As you can see from the picture below, there were many passages that I found especially fascinating or moving, too many to reproduce here. However, for my reader who finds poetry to be a “difficult concept” (as a Vulcan might find humor), here’s an excellent way to think about poetry, especially epic poetry: “Epic is different from life. The present moment might be seen as a blade, cutting the past from the present, severing now from then, but poetry binds the wounds the that time inflicts” (102).
This is a book that wanders, but never rambles; that contends, but refuses to be bogged down in certainty; that is erudite, but not didactic. It’s a book deeply interested in both the concreteness of place and the protean possibilities of language. To turn the pages of Why Homer Matters is to be transported. Highly recommended reading.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.