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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on 13 January 2016
"The Mighty Dead – why Homer matters" by Adam Nicolson is utterly astonishing.

It is the cleverest and most profound book on any subject that I have read in twenty years. It is not a difficult book, as some specialist books on, say, philosophy, theology and philology, for example, are, but it embraces all those and brings together all that makes us Proto-Indo-European speaking people what we are. From my limited vocabulary I'd call it a tour de force, de jeux, de joie, d'esprit; and then I've come nowhere near expressing its impact.

I can hook it up to Schweitzer's wonderful phrase, 'Wir Epigonen', straight from Greek meaning, We inheritors (of a profound culture and civilisation).

You can get it on Kindle for a couple of pounds. Then savour it for the rest of your life, knowing it was the best two pounds you ever spent.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 10 December 2015
A great book. I have never read a 'classic' and I was looking for a companion book to guide me through the wine dark sea of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This book is just that companion explaining the relevance of Homers writing with insights on the text that would never have occurred to me. I am glad I read this first as it shows how Homer has to say about what it is to be human and experience life both as an individual and as a society. It is written with great enthusiasm, a real 'page turner'. Very rapid efficient service from Wordery.
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on 17 December 2014
Just brilliant.

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.
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on 12 June 2014
I bought this thinking that it would be really good but perhaps a little bit dry considering its content. How wrong I was! Adam Nicolson is such a good writer. His work is lyrical and the words just flow. The history and insight are mouth-wateringly interesting and I am devouring it with great pleasure.
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