Lead book review

If you ever wanted a Homeric jump-start, this is your book

A review of The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. A primer, a travel book, an exorcism and meditation and a séance

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters Adam Nicolson

William Collins, pp.314, £25, ISBN: 9780007335527

As a teenager, like many of his class and generation, Adam Nicolson encountered Homer in Greek lessons. The subject matter seemed remote and uninteresting — ‘like someone else’s lunchtime account of a dream from the night before’ — and the words dead on the page — ‘as if the poems were written in maths’. But when Nicolson took Robert Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey with him on a sailing trip up the west coast of Ireland ten years ago, something drastically different sparked.

He came to see Homer ‘as a guide to life, even as a kind of scripture’. The Mighty Dead is, if you like, the resultant work of evangelism: a thrillingly energised book that travels to the real-life locations of the action (the likely site of Hades does not disappoint); that marvels at the deadly leaflike beauty of bronze-age spearheads; that sketches the history of manuscript transmission; that delves into the language of the verse and shows how, at the molecular level, it transmits a whole worldview at once decipherable and dramatically strange. Above all, it searchingly describes Nicolson’s personal encounter with the verse. To read Homer, properly attuned, is to be struck by what Nicolson calls ‘time-vertigo’ — and this book is one that holds your hand and encourages you to peer over the edge.

There’s a very good Homer-for-beginners account here. You get the 19th-century question over whether Homer was one man or several well summarised, for instance. Nicolson does a nice, clear job, too, of explaining how the hexameters work; and hence, exactly why so many Homeric epithets — designed to plug in interchangeably — scan identically. He slightly skates over the difference between Greek (quantitative) and English (stress-based) prosody, but his concern is to draw attention to the orality of the verse.

He gives a vivid sketch of the work of the great Homer scholar Milman Parry and those of his successors who found Yugoslavian storytellers in the 1930s spieling semi-improvisational epics in just the way Homer is thought to have done. But he also points to Hebridean crofters who, eschewing formulaic composition, could be shown around the same time to have stories running into hundreds of thousands of words, memorised verbatim. Homer, Nicolson speculates (I don’t think we could put it more strongly), may have combined the two methods.

The poems are old, but the stuff they are made of is even older. Homer, as Nicolson sees it, dramatises a pivotal moment in the forming of western civilisation, and an ongoing series of conflicts and negotiations in individual human life. He gives us the tension between the peoples of the city and the peoples of the plain; the individualistic, unyielding warrior ideals, embodied in Achilles, versus the changeable, foxy negotiations of an Odysseus. There’s the Iliad’s situation of unimaginable violence, inexorable suffering and singleness of purpose; and then what Nicolson aptly calls ‘the gimballed world of the Odyssey’. The contrasts, though, are not simple: Odysseus brings a little of Achilles into Ithaca on his return; and Achilles’s heartbreaking encounter with Priam represents, it is suggested, a kind of armistice between their worldviews in the appalling desolation of grief.

Nicolson is very bold in suggesting dates, too. He offers speculative but hair-prickling ideas. He doesn’t see why the treasure-filled shaft-graves at Mycenae — evidencing a ‘pre-urban, marginal, heroic world whose inhabitants look very like the people Homer portrayed’ — might not be ‘contemporary with, or probably slightly later than, the deepest levels of the Homeric poems’. He even says that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, long ridiculed for claiming to have found ‘Priam’s treasure’ in the ashes of 2000 BC Troy, might have been right. We have only a shaky guess from Herodotus, he reminds us, to place the historical siege at c.1200 BC. My hunch is that Nicolson will get a bucket from scholars for this, but I’m in no position to say so with authority.

There’s also a simply fascinating digression into what the lexis of Proto-Indo-European can tell us about the world Homer emerged from and whose tribal memory the poems encode. The sea is a field; ships are horses. The poems tell us about not only East meeting West, but the arrival of warrior horsemen from the Indo-European steppe to the north.

There’s library work here, but there’s experiential research too. You will find yourself, possibly, succumbing to Nicolson-envy. Here he is, eating goat meat or some such in the bosky dusk of some Mediterranean island with the Iliad in his hand; here he is sailing his own boat, the Auk, on the open sea and navigating by the stars; here he is looking at wild horses on the sunny grasslands of northern Ukraine. But then again here he is, too, sleeping rough for a fortnight as he hikes over western Crete, shoes ‘shredded by the limestone shards of the mountains, my body crawling with lice from the places I slept’.

There’s also a quite shocking account — the more shocking for Nicolson not making a big deal of it — of his getting raped at knifepoint by a stranger in the Syrian desert countryside 30 years ago. Even in his recounting of that moment, what he’s interested in doing is examining his own feelings in the face of death, and in the animal question of whether to fight or submit: he finds these questions anticipated and echoed in Homer. Nicolson’s style — whether he’s writing about one of Achilles’s bloody killing-runs or his own memories of a particular place he has visited — is a writerly one: careful with its music, visually and aurally exact, and evocative:

The pale roads wind over the hills, tracing the contours between the olives and the cork oaks, with the tung tung tunk tunk of the sheep bells a constant metal music beside them. Oaks that have been stripped of their cork are now date-black, as crusty as the blood on a cut. Grasshoppers flash their amber-ochre underwings. Cattle gather in the shade. Lizards seem to be the only liquid.

There’s plenty like that. Does he overwrite? From time to time, yes. But be it noted that he overwrites extremely well. And, more often than not, just when he’s getting glutinous he’ll spike the sentence with something of a different savour:

The true wild sweet pea, the great-grand-father of all sweet peas grown in the world, was here, its heady scent mixed with the amazing, sugary wafts of the sweet alyssum that was growing in clumps among the limestone, smelling from yards away like plates of honey sandwiches.

You’d blue-pencil ‘heady scent’ and ‘amazing’, at the very least. But ‘plates of honey sandwiches’ (plates!) is brilliant.

There is nothing in this book of humming and hawing, nothing of Professor Dryasdust’s scholarly standoffishness. For all its breadth and fastidious particularity of research, The Mighty Dead is a work of exhilarating enthusiasm. It’s a primer, a travel book, an exorcism, a meditation and a séance. Nicolson simply plunges into Homer, and finds the great poet inexhaustible. It’s a book about what it means (the present tense is correct here because the process is continuous) for Nicolson to encounter Homer as a reader: an experience of wonder digested and communicated in the completest and most generous possible way. To read it is to have a fat pair of Homeric jump-leads attached from Adam Nicolson’s sparking and crackling faculties of appreciation to your own.

The way to get the most out of Nicolson’s book, I think, would be to read Homer through, then read The Mighty Dead, then immediately read Homer again. Time constraints on the writing of this review forbade that. But now I’ve finished… you know, I’m tempted.

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  • transponder

    Thanks for such an intelligent review. (I haven’t read the book — yet.)