44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
The Mighty Dead, Adam Nicholson, William Collins, 2014, 314pp
This is a literary book about the poems of Homer, investigating and analysing the story, the poetry, the background, the influences, and just about every aspect that you can think of. It is extremely well-written, and immerses you in the world of the Ancient Greeks in a way that a traditionally-written history book would have difficulty achieving. There are copious notes and references included here, but tucked away at the back without any indication in the text that is not ‘just’ a book about poetry. I read it over three evenings, and didn’t even notice they were there until I had finished. If you have any interest in the poems of Homer or their place in European culture, this is an excellent view of contemporary research, literary, linguistic, archaeological and whatever, but woven together into a magnificent verbal tapestry.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
I have to confess, I loved this book. But, then, I would: students of Greek Classical studies are prejudiced! However, 'The Mighty Dead' is not an academic tome; it's written in an easy flowing accessible style that belies its deep and wide-ranging scholarship.
The era of Homer's Iliad was the Bronze Age - but there are a series of archaeological event horizons at Troy which date from around 2200BC to 1180BC. There is an age-old division between archaeologists and the ancient texts - being a science, archaeology doesn't hold with aery-faery myth. I tend to imagine the Trojan War as ca. 1450-1380BC. Does it really matter? The Iliad creates its own world.
Nonetheless, there have been discoveries to confirm Homer's Iliad and Odyssey - not least relevant dates for the burning of Troy, the palace of Nestor at 'sandy Pylos' and the Cretan palace of Knossos, (its labyrinthine architecture possibly constructed to take advantage of the winds in the incandescent heat of a southern Mediterranean summer.)
Nicolson's 'take' on Homer is muscular. In the main, the quest in 'The Mighty Dead' was not about finding 'how like us' the ancient Greeks were, in their thinking, practices and beliefs, but how very different. And, as he points out, Odysseus's voyage home to Ithaka, like Jason's to the Black Sea, has been the subject of much speculation - some of it realistic, based on knowledge of ancient seafaring and the construction of galleys, but many other latter-day theories are specious fantasies.
Poetry, for us, is an art form where language is employed for aesthetic purposes as well as semantics. For the ancient Greeks, ποίησις (poiesis) was a 'making' or 'creating.' Homer's words are original, yet come from a supernatural teacher, the breath he inhaled from the Muse. However, epic poetry was also formulaic - confined to the prescription of the hexameter, with many repetitions. Gods, goddesses and heroes all had their traditional epithets attached - 'grey-eyed Athene,' 'wily Odysseus,' 'god-like Achilles.' All these had to fit into the pattern. In addition, as Nicolson says, there are similar stories or myths peculiar to their own locales and yet which occur elsewhere, in seemingly unconnected locations.
Nicolson favours the English translations of Robert Fagles. I prefer Richmond Lattimore's versions - but this is personal taste. There are a few errors in the book, which I put down to editors or printers. A caption for one of the colour plates is out of sync - the Cyclopean walls of Tiryns appear opposite p.107, the caption opp. p.186, but this is a publishing error. Like the random typos, it should be picked up and corrected if the volume goes to another edition.
There are thirty-two pages of comprehensive notes, chapter by chapter, plus a informative bibliography for reference or further reading, listed by subject headers or themes.
This is my Book of the Year, 2014. It reminds of the C.P. Cafavy poem, 'As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery ...'
Overall, a valuable contribution to the vast library of Homer studies, as well as a compilation of life experiences, history, the Odyssey, the Iliad, travelogue and musings on 'Why Homer Matters.'
Because he does.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2014
This book is aimed at the general reader and does a wonderful job of explaining the continued importance of the Homeric texts. Having taught these epics for many years, I am grateful for this articulate explanation of the importance of the texts. I wish I could have done it myself.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2015
This is a stimulating book, well written as with all the many other Adam Nicolson books, putting forward interesting and beguiling arguments as to the date of the events described in the Iliad and the Odyssey, which makes perfect sense and but which adds one or two added levels of complication not only as to when both were composed and but how and when both were written down for posterity. Whether he is right or wrong does not matter; but the fact that he makes people think about whether the earlier assumptions may be right or wrong is the crucial function of a book such as this. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey could be properly described as foundation blocks of European and World culture, I recall,vividly, being in a class at my Prep School, aged about 12, having the 'Slaughter of the Suitors' read out with enthusiasm and relish by a potty schoolmaster! I was so intrigued that I went and bought the EV Rieu translation in paperback. Whether trained in the Classics or not, reading this book makes you think again about what other commentators have said about the dating, origins and transmission of both books. I also like the idea of the Greeks at Troy being compared with 20th and 21st Century street gangs in New Jersey, to explain the sort of people the original Greeks were.
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 6 June 2014
This is a truly wonderful book that illuminates, surprises, dazzles and moves. If you ever thought Homer was a difficult inaccessible subject, then this book will completely change your mind. Adam Nicolson demonstrates brilliantly Homer's understanding of humanity and the amazing relevance his writing has for all of us. Thrilling.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
The author is a great enthusiast for the works of Homer; though I suspect more of an Odyssey man than an Iliadista (I belong to the latter school). This book represents an attempt to explain that enthusiasm, to put it in a historical context and to reflect on its power. If writing or reading poetry has its difficulties, how much more difficult to communicate one's own love of a piece to others; a task requiring Proustian skills. I never felt I fully grasped what Adam Nicolson saw in the works (as against what I see), though his extended section on Odysseus in the grip of Poseidon probably took me as near to that madeleine as I will reach without going to sea.
Fortunately the book succeeded very well in so many other areas. The use of language to place the original events in realms of a steppe-people (red meat and raiding) was very persuasive, moving back the events behind the poem to 1800 BC rather than 1250 BC. The discussion of bardic tradition (is it constantly changing - the Kriepiad, or astonishingly regular - Scottish Islesmen) and the comparison with contemporary tales (The Story of Sinuhe)are all very valuable. If Nicolson never quite got his love of the Odyssey into my fat head he succeeded with his description of place - the gates of Hades in Spain, and the megaron of Emporio in Chios could almost be sniffed. All in all he continues in the tradition of singing this most ancient of songs: many-voiced lord of windy Carnock.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 17 December 2014
I worried at first because the book sets out too much that is already common knowledge. Was it just going to continue in this manner?
No. Adam Nicholson has seemingly lived with and in Homer since his childhood, and he generously shares his depth of knowledge about the history, the rich poetry and its expressive technicalities,and the sheer magnificence of the concept of the Iliad and Odyssey.
Hat's off, Gentlemen! this book is a dazzling revelation of such deep understanding of Homer's worth - it is a book that matters.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 22 April 2015
Homer is the original Invisible Man of history - we know effectively nothing about him. His poems may be part of Western culture, but they are not often read in their entirety except by specialists , and often presented in a sugary Hollywood format. yet when we actually read them, even in a good translation, we find a frightening, barbaric world, human beings tossed around like toys by Gods, an atmosphere closer to tragedy than the dignified epic we may have expected.
Here is Adam Nicolson to explain all this, and much more besides. In a book that's essentially faultless, he presents us with Bronze Age Greeks who resemble the Vikings more than they do Plato and Socrates, confronting and overwhelming the more civilised, urban Trojans. It's convincing, and as with other insights of his, well supported by recent archeological evidence.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 July 2015
this is the most wonderful book i've read in ages. i came to it as a lay person, with some apprehension, but was utterly swept up by about the third page. a massive swooping flight through time, making us look again at everything we thought we knew about the classical world. what would the western world be like if the illiad were our founding text, rather than the bible? nicholson traces homer back and back through time, bronze age spears like those mentioned in the text, the text itself being oral not written, huge swathes of people, civilisations and poetry. the best comparison i can give is the feeling of freefall you have when looking at the galaxies and the stars, this book takes you headlong into millennia ago, where souls needed poetry just as we do now. utterly gobsmacking. can't recommend it highly enough.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 January 2015
For me, this book is not only good or indeed excellent but essential. It puts Homer`s works in their geographical and social context and, in so doing,provides wonderful illumination. The first few chapters are hard going but persistance is justified. I shall reread the poems with a new insight and far greater understanding. Nicholson`s eclectic knowledge of the whole Mediterranean and its history, of the roots of language and the interplay of movements of early peoples, gives a satisfyingly three dimensional view of the period. So many aspects of life and knowledge are brought in to explain features of them and especially the Iliad. He draws on Pharaonic Egypt, the Hittite empire, Khazakstan, Sweden and Celtic Ireland and many more to illustrate and indeed explain incidents in these epics. A truly wonderful book.