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POET OF AN (ALMOST LOST) AGE
on 6 September 2014
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.